Book Review: By Hook Or By Crook

By Hook Or By Crook:  A Journey In Search Of English, by David Crystal

As someone who greatly enjoys reading about the origins and the tortured history of the English language [1] and languages in general, I found this book to be delightful if somewhat intentionally scattered.  Being a somewhat scatter-brained person myself, I can hardly object to a book that is delightfully random, though.  To be sure, this author does not take a different approach to language than most others in the field–he is describing language as it is or was, and not as it should be, and he seems to think that it is possible that the adherents of Standard English overstated the rules of spelling and grammar and included details that were sometimes irrelevant in conveying meaning in our written communication.  The fact that the author praises bloggers consistently is something that is well-calculated to obtain the goodwill of a prolific blogger like myself, though.  When all else fails in seeking a sympathetic hearing, an author can always appeal to the self-interest of the people reading and reviewing such a book, after all.  In reading this book, one gets a sense of the sort of person that the author is, and in general the author comes off as friendly and likable, the sort of chap that one would enjoy having a meal with or engaging in conversation while browsing large collections of used books.

In a bit under 300 pages, the author goes on a journey to see how English is spoken all over the world.  As a Brit, it is not too surprising that most of the places the author explores are in the British Isles, including a few locations in Wales (most of them in Gwynedd), the West Midlands of England as well as East Anglia, and a few places of interest in Europe, Africa, and the United States.  We read the author browsing for books, trying to determine if there is an official Euro-English or Canadian English dialect forming, and enjoying his communication with people with as diverse speaking habits of English as possible.  There is a clear love of language and of the people who speak them in this book, and that makes this a far less heavy-handed book than many linguistics books happen to be.  The author does not rant and generally portrays himself as being occasionally clueless and generally well-meaning, and the book sparkles with encounters between the author and ordinary people, where there are many questions about background and the complexity of dialect and accent.  Overall, it makes for an immensely enjoyable and often light-hearted read.

One of the areas of particular interest for the writer, and the subject of many of its chapters, is the origin of particular words and phrases and the ways that people shape a language through their own use of it.  Beyond the journeys of the author himself in terms of place, the journey through time of words and expressions as discussed here is quite entertaining as well.  This is a book that is full of useful knowledge and certainly an instructive book, but it is never pedantic or boring, rather focusing on providing learning through stories and also asking questions as to why some words catch on and others do not, or why some phrases and expressions are continually reinvented by those who fancy themselves original, or why some archaic aspects of grammar become new again and are viewed as new errors rather than old accepted forms returning to the language after a long absence.  One of the more entertaining aspects of this is the plural informations, which many speakers of Preferred American or Standard English tend to think of as entirely a singular word, but which was once plural.  If you enjoy an odd but pleasant excursion through the random expanse of the English language, this is definitely a book to enjoy.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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1 Response to Book Review: By Hook Or By Crook

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: The History Of The English Language, Part 3 | Edge Induced Cohesion

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