Rob Hardy on books


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Asterisk History



Rob Hardy


Tom Howell ought to be the perfect person to write a heavily referenced and footnoted academic tome about the English language and the origins of our words and sayings. He is a lexicographer who edited and wrote definitions for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Maybe Howell will write that academic tome someday, but this is far from it: The Rude Story of English (McClelland & Stewart) is full of fun, jokes, silliness, and legends that Howell himself has dreamed up. Not only that, he has taken as his inspiration J. R. R. Tolkien, who before his days originating Middle-Earth, worked on etymology for the Oxford English Dictionary. Howell's words that start explaining his indebtedness to Tolkien are illustrative, introducing him as "... the same person who helped write The Lord of the Rings movies. He worked at Oxford's dictionary department for two years, 1919 and 1920, until he grew tired of trying to remain plausible and wandered off to write about hobbits instead." Tolkien understood something about heroes, and imagined that the legendary warrior Hengest (one of the characters in Beowulf), questing for the northern German tribe the Angles, discovered Britain in 449 CE. Or, as Howell writes, "The warrior decided to settle down on the island, make babies, and invite his fellow thugs to do the same. Events were conspiring to give our language a great foundational hero." 




Howell figures that English, and the history thereof, needs such a hero, and so he has dreamed up an "asterisk reality" in which Hengest is around for all the changes in English, even those in the most recent century. Howell calls it an asterisk reality because philologists, faced countless times with unverifiable accounts of how a word came to be, would put asterisks on such accounts, as in, "well, maybe so." Hengest is the book's, and the English language's, "asterisk hero," not to be confused with the Asterix heroes of the French comic books, which Howell says are "populated with Gauls and Romans engaged in unevenly plausible scenarios drawn from facts and other speculations. The asterisk reality is exactly the same thing." With one difference: Howell knows enough stuff about the language and about history that he cannot help cramming his eccentric volume with lots of bona fide facts, although even these are skewed to the odd and whimsical. And rude. 




For instance, though he may now live in Canada, he is London-born, and he wishes that his home nation were named Sexland. After all, there are still a bunch of sex names in England, like Essex and Middlesex. These are "based on the word 'Sexon,' the label for people who claimed German ancestry but didn't self-identify as Angles, Jutes, Frisians, Half-Danes, Quarter-Danes, or giants." How it came to be Angle-land (eventually England) is mysterious, as the Angles were less significant than the Saxons (who were originally called "Sexons"). This is particularly perplexing because King Alfred was not an Angle; he was a West Saxon, but he is the "first person caught on parchment calling the whole of southern Britain 'the Angle kingdom.'" 




So Sexland it will never be, but as this is the rude story of English, there is plenty of other rudeness. Ever the lexicographer, even before page one Howell gives us 23 definitions of "rude." He explains, "I'm not just looking at swear words. I kind of want the book to be rude in every sense of the word. Like, rude can mean something that's approximate or inexpert or rough or kind of cobbled together or lively, so I kind of play with all the definitions of rude as I'm trying to spin this super-complicated thing, a language, into a story, into a heroic epic." The very first English word, according to his history, was "Argh!" which was possibly what Hengest yelled when he possibly fell off his boat onto the English shore near Ebbsfleet. It was among the words that could have been used for swearing, and it came with a basket of meanings including "break oath," "run away," "coward," and "enemy." Howell thus fills a void. There are 60,000 words that have come to us from the first millennium of English, but none from that time show a context of use as expletives. "Language experts have blamed this absence on censorship, illiteracy, librarian-bias, monk-bias, poetic fashion, and bad luck." 




A particularly thorny / silly etymological problem is that of the word "ass." As a word for donkey, it is one of the few Ancient Brythonic words that crossed the Dark Ages and entered our current language unchanged. "Things were looking good for it until the Americans absent-mindedly parked their slang term for 'bum' right on top." "Donkey" is far more modern: "My big dictionary today refers to 'donkey' as 'a recent word of slang origin,' which either reveals how long it's been since an editor peeked at the entry, or confirms that lexicographers really do need to get out more." An ass never got confused with an arse, Howell says, until American southerners got hold of it. They "cussed" rather than "cursed," and rode "hosses" rather than "horses," and had pipes that would "bust" rather than "burst," but "none of these yokel words has yet knocked its fancy equivalent from top spot in American society." But "ass" won over "arse." How? Howell admits that "the paper trail is murky," but speculates, "Maybe those southerners swore more often. Maybe all the r-reluctant cells in America teamed up at the right moment, by coincidence, as when a freak election puts an underdog in power. Maybe being rude and crude gave "ass/arse" greater flex than "cuss/curse." A host of asterisks, to be sure. 




The in-book rudeness starts with what could be considered the oldest book in English (Old English, of course), known as The Exeter Book, which dates from the tenth century. It has elegies in it, and The Lord's Prayer, and sections about Jesus, and liturgies. It also has ninety-six riddles in the form of fanciful descriptions for which readers are to guess, "What am I?" The riddles are not hard to figure out, once you realize that the answer to each one is: "A penis." One starts, "Ic eom wunderlicu wiht / wifum on hyhte / neahbuendum nyt / ngum scee," which means, "I am a wonderful thing / to women a thrill / handy in the neighborhood / I harm no one." Someone thought this was a rum good one all those centuries ago. "Rum," incidentally, got used a lot by pirates, who didn't just use rum but also "rum" as in "good," or "rumville" for a capital city or "rumdiver" for a pickpocket.  




There are many other curious facts crammed into this strange semifictional neo-legend, with Hengest (and sometimes his daughter or sister Horsehair) showing up as a comic barbarian tour guide. Who cares if Hengest might show up as a Viking, a Caribbean pirate, a poet, a riddler, Robin Hood, or Merlin? Here you can find the shameful imposition of English upon slaves in America, how Scottish people insulted each other in the sixteenth century, how swearing was often done by referring to bits of Jesus's anatomy, a flowchart on how to send modern song lyrics back into the words of the Middle Ages, another to show the mechanism of the Great Vowel Shift, and much more. Funny, informative, and of course rude, Howell's book is unique. He says, "I'm often struck by how tenuously I know my own language, which is why I like to look words up in dictionaries - for the sense of reassurance that somebody out there has been keeping track of it all." Or not, as his own book shows.



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