Green Books Campaign: Strange Bedfellows by Howard Richler

by Kim on November 10, 2010 · 29 comments

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A Note from Eco-Libris: This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on “green” books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.

Title: Strange Bedfellows: The Secret Lives of Words
Author: Howard Richler
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2010
Acquired: From the publisher for review as part of the Green Books Campaign.
Rating: ★★★☆☆

Two Sentence Summary: Curious about where some common words came from? This book gives lots of details.

One Sentence Review: Strange Bedfellows wasn’t quite what I expected, but was still a relatively enjoyable read.

Why I Read It: I like doing the Green Books Campaign, and I like reading books about words. Hence, a natural fit.

Long Review: One of the things I’ve always loved about learning the history of English is the way that our language is designed to absorb words from other languages with ease. It makes English more complicated, sure, but it also makes it flexible and able to adjust easily to different lexicon and common words. I think that makes it fun.

It can also make for some relatively funny stories about where words come from and how their meanings have morphed in English, which is the topic of Strange Bedfellows by Howard Richler.

Now, when I saw Strange Bedfellows on the list of books for the Green Books Campaign, I thought it was going to be a sort of narrative history of the English language – something like The Story of English which I read for a language class in college and really loved.

Strange Bedfellows was actually really different – it was basically just a book full words organized into sections like “Ten Words You Never Knew Came from Unmentionable Body Parts” and “Ten Words You Never Knew Came from Mythology.” When I realized this is what the book was, I was immediately worried that it was going to be really boring – I love words, but just lists and lists?

Luckily, it was actually a lot better than I thought, almost entirely because Howard Richler has a really dry and nerdy sense of humor. The book is full of interesting words, which he is able to make even more interesting by the way he tells the stories. A couple of examples are probably in order:

SALARY: If you are fortunate enough to still have a job and are exuding saline, sweat, blood and tears to earn the salary on which income tax is based, you are etymologically correct. In Roman times, when salt was not easy to obtain and served the purpose of maintaining as well as enhancing the savour of food, it was so highly valued that soldiers were allowed a sum of money to buy it. Later this money, called salarium, came to refer to the stipend paid to the soldiers. Hence, if you are indeed earning your salary, you are “worth your salt.” Another word that etymologically is salt-related is “salad,” as the original salads in the late fifteenth century were usually seasoned with salt.

BRIDAL: If being in a bridal party drives you to drink, it just might related to the word’s etymology. You should, however, not be sipping champagne, but rather guzzling ale, as “bridal” weds the Old English words bryd, “bride” with eaou, “ale.” There is a reference to the libation bryd ealo in the Old English Chronicles of 1075.

I find both of those pretty funny – at least worth a little smirk and a note to remember the anecdote the next time I’m talking about how much money I make or about what it’s like to be a bridesmaid.  While I don’t think this is a book I’d recommend just sitting down to read straight through (much like I did), it’s amusing and interesting enough that it could be a fun book for word lovers to take a look at.

It also made me curious about Richler’s other books – The Dead Sea Scroll Palindromes, Take My Words, A Bawdy Language, Global Mother Tongue, and Can I have a Word With You? If he married his style with a more narrative approach, I think it’d be awesome.

And why is this book green? According to the book information, the publisher, Ronsdale Press is working with Canopy and printers to phase out the uses of paper produced from ancient forests. Strange Bedfellows is one of the books in this effort.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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