Review

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words

by Bill Bryson



The grand master of wit has taken on a scholarly task: writing a
dictionary. Or, more correctly, he has taken it on
again.

In 1983, Bill Bryson, a brash, young copy editor for the
London Times, realized that the English language
contained, as he put it, "vast linguistic Serengetis" about which
he was not completely clear. Therefore, he boldly pointed out to
Penguin Books the need for a guide to the proper use of some of our
language's gray areas, and volunteered to tackle the job. He
received an unexpected thumbs-up. The result was Bryson's first
book, THE PENGUIN DICTIONARY OF TROUBLESOME WORDS. As a hint to its
contents, he proposed the alternate subtitle "A Guide to Everything
in English Usage that The Author Wasn't Entirely Clear About Until
Quite Recently."

With the passage of nearly 20 years, updating became a necessity,
culminating in about 60 percent new material --- everything from
a, an to zoom, with an appendix of punctuation usage
and a glossary of grammatical terms.

To illustrate
English language oddities, he auspiciously points out that the word
set has 126 meanings as a verb, 58 as a noun and 10 as a
participial adjective --- whatever that is. (If you don't know,
then this is the resource.) Plus, there's help for those of us who
endlessly confuse affect and effect, rack and
wrack, or its and it's. The author explains
whether you're nauseous or nauseated, lying or laying, implying or
inferring. You can find out whether to compare with or compare to,
lend or loan, hoard or horde. Are you writing irony or sarcasm,
making an allusion or illusion, speaking from the lectern, podium,
dais, or rostrum? If you ever need to know that flak is
actually a contraction for Fliegerabwehrkanone, this is the
book to turn to.

Mr. Bryson takes pains to include the disclaimer, however,
that this Dictionary should be viewed as a "compilation of
suggestions, observations and even treasured prejudices," not a
text of unyielding rules. After all, it is English he attempts to
put into some sort of order, a language that defies logic and
flaunts --- or is it flouts --- its unorthodoxy.

In the belief that the world is ever shrinking, his new edition
includes more international terms than before. For example,
Afrikaans is a language; Afrikaners is a group of people. The Aran
Islands are in Ireland, but the Isle of Arran is in Scotland. You
may own a Doberman pinscher, unless you're in Britain, where you
own a Dobermann pinscher. You can visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris,
or the Eifel Mountains in Germany. Or maybe an eisteddfod in Wales.
If you go frequently, you'll be attending eisteddfodau. Don't
laugh; someday you may have a use for such knowledge. Until then,
store all that information in this handy 220-plus-page guide.

Despite Bill Bryson's reputation as a humor writer, his DICTIONARY
OF TROUBLESOME WORDS, a serious reference work, is very nearly
indispensable --- for conscientious writers, at least. Place it on
the shelf next to THE MOTHER TONGUE: English and How It Got that
Way or MADE IN AMERICA: An Informal History of the English Language
in the United States. While I didn't spew coffee through my nose
without warning (several times) while reading it, as I did with
NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND, A WALK IN THE WOODS, and IN A SUNBURNED
COUNTRY (to name a few of his travel books), I had never before
read a dictionary cover to cover. This one kept me rapt. Bryson is
highly entertaining no matter his endeavour --- or, rather,
endeavor on this side of the pond.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 21, 2011

Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words
by Bill Bryson

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2004
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Reference
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 0767910435
  • ISBN-13: 9780767910439