Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

by Patricia T. O'Conner, Stewart Kellerman
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Overview

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O'Conner, Stewart Kellerman

Do you cringe when a talking head pronounces “niche” as NITCH? Do you get bent out of shape when your teenager begins a sentence with “and”? Do you think British spellings are more “civilised” than the American versions? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you’re myth-informed. 

    In Origins of the Specious, word mavens Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman reveal why some of grammar’s best-known “rules” aren’t—and never were—rules at all. This playfully witty, rigorously researched book sets the record straight about bogus word origins, politically correct fictions, phony français, fake acronyms, and more. Here are some shockers: “They” was once commonly used for both singular and plural, much the way “you” is today. And an eighteenth-century female grammarian, of all people, is largely responsible for the all-purpose “he.” From the Queen’s English to street slang, this eye-opening romp will be the toast of grammarphiles and the salvation of grammarphobes. Take our word for it.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400066605
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/05/2009
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Patricia T. O’Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, has written four books on language and writing–the bestselling Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English; Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing; Woe Is I Jr.: The Younger Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English; and You Send Me: Getting It Right When You Write Online.

Stewart Kellerman has been an editor at The New York Times and a foreign correspondent for UPI in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. He co-authored You Send Me with his wife, Patricia T. O’Conner, and he runs their website and blog at grammarphobia.com. They live in rural Connecticut.


From the Hardcover edition.

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Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
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It has never been wrong to "split" an infinitive; George Washington contributed the words "bakery" and "ravine" to the English language; in the heyday of Hollywood, Gene Flack was a publicity agent. Those interesting and disparate tidbits of information can signal only one thing: that grammar sleuths Patricia T. O'Conner and her husband, Stewart Kellerman - the Nora and Nick Charles of etymology - are gleefully back on the case. Now, I don't know if their choice of pet runs to the wire fox terrier, or if the dry martini is their cocktail of choice, but in their new collaboration, "Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language," O'Conner and Kellerman seem every bit as witty, charming and erudite as Myrna Loy and William Powell in the "Thin Man" movies. The book is chock-full of interesting information: The expression "call a spade a spade" had its roots in a Greek expression that should have been rendered as "call a trough a trough," except that it was mistranslated back in the Renaissance. "Deadline" started out as a 4-foot-high fence marking the no-man's-land inside the walls of a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. And, no, the Victorian-era plumbing magnate Thomas Crapper did not lend his unfortunate family moniker to the porcelain throne. The authors start out with a bang, in the early chapters. After noting the two main strains of the English language -- British English and American English - O'Conner and Kellerman carefully lay out their case that American English is actually truer to the original. Ever wondered why there sometimes is a preferred British spelling of a word that is different from the preferred American spelling? "Blame two cranky old men - Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson," each of whom wrote an influential dictionary. As for the proliferation of grammar rules that drive us crazy, the authors finger "overzealous Latinists in a misguided attempt to force English to play by the rules of Latin." All of the information in the book is solid, but the presentation is never dry. There is a deliciously ribald anecdote, for example, that explains how the genteel and proper Robert Browning happened to employ a particularly piquant four-letter word in one of his poems. And, like colorful nonpareils atop a cupcake, the text is sprinkled with a tasty array of pop culture references, when using them can help the authors get across a point: from long-gone actor Georgie Jessel to erstwhile "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul; Miss Grundy of Archie comics fame to Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik character on the early-`60s sitcom "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"; the Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin classic "The Man That Got Away" to "The Invisible Shrinking Man"; Harry Potter. My particular favorite is this: "Femella was strictly a female female," which positively sings. Still, the book is not without heft when it's needed, including nods to Lindley Murray, a noted grammarian of the 1800s, as well as to Sidney Morgenbesser. Finally, like the aforementioned Nick and Nora Charles, the authors of "Origins of the Specious" could not be more generous of spirit, liberally crediting other grammarians throughout the book. "Origins of the Specious" is a worthy follow-up to Ms. O'Conner's earlier works "Woe Is I" and "Words Fail Me."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Patricia T. O'Conner has shown us once again how much fun language can be. She and her husband, Stewart Kellerman, have written a book that is as witty as it is well-researched. It shatters old myths and offers insights into new trends. Here are a few facts the book presents: * Vogue words like "synergy" may be older than you think * American English is no less pedigreed than British English * Some "dirty" words were innocent casualties in the war between Old English and Norman French O'Conner and Kellerman aren't shy about offering opinions to go along with the facts. Their approach favors guidelines based on how speakers and writers use language, not on how grammarians theorize that we ought to use language. Prescriptivists may take offense. After all, they're proud of their specialized knowledge, and they may not want to hear that such knowledge is based on old misconceptions. But for those with a more egalitarian approach, this book is liberating. I can split infinitives, start sentences with conjunctions, and end sentences with prepositions--just as educated writers and speakers of English always have. I needn't cringe at expressions like "shyster" and "rule of thumb." Their origins are benign. It turns out that English has a more democratic history than I thought. So now I can love my native language even more.