Book on English hilariously informative

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February 25, 2014

The Rude Story of English

By Tom Howell

Published by McClelland & Stewart

300 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

English is a patchwork quilt of a language, with words borrowed from other languages and “rules” applied arbitrarily.  We probably all memorized the “I before E except after C” rule in school and have seen the meme going around on Facebook that shows the exceptions to that rule.  In his debut book The Rude Story of English, Tom Howell attempts to trace the paths of English through time and place and find out how some of the words evolved—or didn’t.

Howell is a graduate of the University of Victoria who wrote definitions for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and thesaurus entries for the Canadian Oxford Thesaurus—an excellent background for this book.  He’s also worked for CBC Radio as in-house word nerd and poetry correspondent.  He is originally from London, England, and now lives in Toronto, Ontario, and has thus experienced firsthand the changes wrought in a language over time and place.

Howell begins his history of English by creating a hero—a personification of the English language whom we can follow and cheer for (or groan in disgust at).  To find his hero, he goes back to another word nerd: J. R. R. Tolkien, who also worked for Oxford’s dictionary department.  Tolkien also understood English’s need for a hero and chose Hengest, an “ancient warrior who had somehow gained a reputation for discovering Britain on behalf of the Angles, a tribe in northern Germany, thereby inventing the English language.”

From the opening pages of The Rude Story of English, Howell had me laughing out loud.  He sprinkles just enough research and fact through his story to make it believable, yet most of it is “asterisked” as he fills in the gaps of our knowledge.  The story is rude, irreverent, and hilarious, with penis jokes sprinkled among word jokes.  Howell lopes through the centuries, showing how English grew up as a language and mentioning key figures in its evolution, such as Beowulf,  Chaucer and Roger Williams.

Howell includes samples of poetry in Old English with his own translations.  In regards to various anonymous works of poetry and prose that have survived from English’s early days, he says, “I know several male poets.  The idea that they would contribute anything of significance without pasting their real names (including, often as not, their middle names) all over the material strikes me as implausible.  If Anon’s true identity was lost to the ignorance and carelessness of time, I bet she was an Anonyma, a woman who chose the pseudonym to dodge the biases of critics.”

The Rude Story of English is a book for lovers of words, puns, history, language and humour.  If you want a good dose of humour with a bit of learning thrown in, I heartily recommend it.  As Howell himself says:  “I’m often struck by how tenuously I know my own language, which is why I like to look words up in dictionaries—for the sense of reassurance that somebody out there has been keeping track of it all.”

Bonnie Way has a B.A. in English and History and is completing a second B.A. in Writing.

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