By Hook or by Crook

By DAVID CRYSTAL

In his latest venture into the quagmire of the English language, the linguist David Crystal embarks on a haphazard travelogue, modeled very broadly after W. G. Sebald?s The Rings of Saturn. Backcountry roads, pub signs, and excitable sheep are for Crystal all opportunities to digress and expound upon the variousness of English etymology. Writing with the colloquial lucidity of a professor downing a martini, Crystal is a more-than-able guide: his traipsing about the British countryside (with minor detours to India, Poland, and San Francisco) provides a delightful window into the intricacies of place names. Who knew that Bricklehampton was the longest isogrammatic place name in English? And for that matter, who knew an isogram was a word in which each letter appears an equal number of times? But By Hook or by Crook has more to its pages than just fun facts. Beneath its airy demeanor lies a real awareness of the fact that when dealing with language, politics tends to follow not far behind, and Crystal?s geographical premise allows him to take on the daunting linguistic questions raised by globalization. Crystal may have a nerd?s ardor for the finer points of grammar, but he?s no curmudgeon either — his English is a language in an ongoing evolution, “a period in which the foundation for major linguistic change is being laid” by the Internet and the growth of new linguistic subcultures (Euro-English, Indian English, the “Singlish” of Singapore). Etymology may seem an arcane subject, but Crystal?s seemingly infinite curiosity is infectious — it?s hard not to get caught up in his distinctly British relish for the absurd.