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!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

avisannschild November 10, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This was actually my first choice from the list of books participating in the Green Books Campaign, although like you I thought he’d take a more narrative approach. Glad to hear you enjoyed it anyway!

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm

aviannschild: I was a little surprised by the approach, but once I got used to it I thought it was enjoyable. I hope you get a chance to read it.

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Jeanne November 10, 2010 at 3:28 pm

I’d be like you about the lists, but glad to know that some of them pulled you in. I knew that about salary, but bridal is a new one on me–now I’ll think about it, particularly at weddings where no booze is offered (I have Methodist relatives).

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:55 pm

Jeanne: That’s why I thought “bridal” was so funny, since being part of weddings makes me want to drink :)

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Amy November 10, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Oh I love the sound of this! Sounds like a great book to dip in to now and again :)

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:56 pm

Amy: Yes, I think it’d be a good book to read a list at a time over a few weeks as a diversion or just when you have a few minutes to read.

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debnance at readerbuzz November 10, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I love books about words. I must seek this one out. Thank you for reviewing this.

I’d love to have you stop by and take a look at the Green book I’m reviewing. http://readerbuzz.blogspot.com/2010/11/green-books-campaign-stuff-reduce-reuse.html

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:57 pm

debnance: Yes, do seek this one out if you love words, I think you’d enjoy it.

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rhapsodyinbooks November 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I too love books about words! Love the derivation of bridal – how appropriate!

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:57 pm

rhapsodyinbooks: I thought “bridal” was especially funny too!

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Serena November 10, 2010 at 7:27 pm

I’ve always loved words and their entomology. Its fun to see where the words come from and how they became part of the English language.

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Serena: How words came into the English language is one of my favorite parts – I love the way English so easily adopts words.

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Erin November 10, 2010 at 8:30 pm

This sounds really fun. I love words and their etymologies! Maybe not a book to read straight through, but one to pick up now and then.

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Erin: Exactly – it’d be a great one to dip in and out of.

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Holly November 10, 2010 at 8:51 pm

Sounds interesting. I have a collection of etymology books–I might have to add this one to it.

Here’s my review for the Green Books Campaign, if you’re interested: http://litlad.blogspot.com/2010/11/green-books-campaign-eriks-enigma.html

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Holly: This would make a nice, unique book in a collection. Thanks for stopping by!

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Cass November 10, 2010 at 10:54 pm

This sounds like the perfect book for word nerds in my family! One Christmas present crossed off the list. Thanks!

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm

Cass: Yes, this is a great word nerd book – it’d be fun to read some of the words to family after opening it too (at least, that’s something I think my family would do).

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BuriedInPrint November 11, 2010 at 11:51 am

::scurries off to find a copy of this::

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 6:01 pm

BuriedInPrint: Good luck finding a copy :)

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Leeswammes (Judith) November 11, 2010 at 12:47 pm

That sounds like a very interesting and entertaining book! I’m always thinking about words and where they come from. Often, I try to find connections between words in different languages and this book would be really good fun!

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Kim November 11, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Leeswammes: I don’t speak enough languages to make connections between them, but I wish that I did :)

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Callista November 11, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Ooh I’m another person who loves reading about words. I considered this one when I picked my green book. I might have to see if my library has any books by him. Thanks.

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Kim November 13, 2010 at 4:58 pm

Callista: That’s cool, I hope your library has a copy.

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Erinna Gilkison November 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

If anyone in the US is having trouble finding this title (it should be available through Amazon and some bookstores, but it’s not always readily available) you can always order it through us, the publisher. Just email me at ronsdale@shaw.ca.
Glad to read about the interest in the book! Thanks Kim!
Erinna

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Kim November 13, 2010 at 4:59 pm

Erinna: Thanks for sharing that information – I saw a number of his other books are on Amazon.

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David Guion November 18, 2010 at 2:34 pm

I hadn’t heard of the Green Books Campaign, but I’m sure glad to know about it. As a word-loving nerd, I think Richler’s book is the kind of thing I would love to have handy in the bathroom.

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Kim November 20, 2010 at 9:56 am

David: Yes, it would make a funny bathroom book. I actually think there’s a chapter about words that have to do with bathrooms, or something of that sort.

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