Damp Squid: the English language laid bare, Jeremy Butterfield

I was given a copy of Damp Squid: the English language laid bare for Christmas. I’d like to say one of my best friends knows me so well that this was a gift he picked himself, but I asked for the book and he called me a nerd when he gave it to me.

This is the publisher’s description:

How many words are there in the English language and where were they born? Why does spelling ‘wobble’ and why do meanings change? How do words behave towards each other – and how do we behave towards words? And what does this all mean for dictionary-making in the 21st century? This entertaining book has the up-to-date and authoritative answers to all the key questions about our language.

Source: Damp Squid

Jeremy Butterfield edited the recent edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and I have shared some of his articles on Twitter. I admire his work; I think he is an eminently sensible man.

Damp Squid is aimed at a British audience but I am sure an American reader would understand most of the references (or at least understand them enough in context).

I think it is fair to describe the book as a love letter to the Oxford Corpus. The corpus is made up of global English texts, of all types, that can be read electronically. From this, researchers can draw conclusions about how the English language is being used.

BookshelfButterfield uses the corpus to explore the evolution and usage of English. He focuses on how the language is used rather than on prescribed ideas of how it should be used. If you have read some of my previous posts, you are probably aware that I usually write about standard usage rather than ‘correct’ usage. The book gives a good overview of how standard is determined and the problems that arise from trying to present one ‘correct’ version of English.

You might think that a book taking a close look at spelling and grammar would be dry and a bit dull. On the whole, Damp Squid is entertaining and interesting. Butterfield is mostly successful in balancing depth of information with amusing examples (“spam rage – the incandescent anger caused by dozens of emails offering to enhance parts of your anatomy you were perfectly happy with”). The discussion is accompanied by explanatory tables of usage statistics and illuminating quotes from such figures as Samuel Johnson.

All the chapters are clearly written and accessible. You don’t have to be a language expert to enjoy the book but an interest in the English language is probably required.

Two of my favourite chapters are those on where words come from and words that often group together. You might recognise the eggcorn in the title: damp squid. It appears in the chapter discussing idiomatic phrases, and the chapter is fascinating (especially the section comparing idioms from different languages).

I read Damp Squid in a few enjoyable hours (it is 165 pages excluding notes and index). You can find more reviews on Amazon, and you can probably acquire a second-hand copy for a reasonable amount if you fancy adding it to your bookshelf. Or you could start your Christmas list early.

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