Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue is the first of his non-travel books, and one of two about the English language (Made in America is the other). Like the rest of his books, this was perfect before-bed reading: interesting and amusing, to clear my mind, but not much in the way of narrative drive, to keep me awake too long.
Nearly every page of this book has something good on it, that I want to write down or tell someone about. Just the first chapter includes: a Danish word that means “instantly satisfying and cozy,” hygge (anyone know how to pronounce that? I think we need to adopt it); a “Highlands Scottish” (Scots Gaelic?) word for “the habit of dropping in at mealtimes,” sgiomlaireachd; and an introductory discussion of why English is so flippin’ hard. This last was very relevant this week, as I did paper-torture with an intern at work: some things I could explain, or hand over photocopies from Woe Is I and The Elements of Style, but for a few, I had to resort to, “I’m sorry I can’t adequately explain why this is wrong. Just trust me.” Flipping through later chapters, I’ve lighted on the assertion that Shakespeare created approximately 1,700 words; a mention of a Broadmoor inmate’s tens of thousands contributions to the original OED; and a discussion of the British crossword which reminds me why I just skip past most of the Wimsey short story “Uncle Meleager’s Will.”
If you’re reading this, you obviously care at least somewhat about language. Therefore, you ought to read this book. Go on, I’ll still be here when you get back.