Sunday book review: Origins of the Specious

This is the first of a weekly book review post – if you’ve got any suggestions please share them!

Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman

Origins of the Specious
sets the record straight on some common misconceptions about the English language. It’s so good, it actually made me angry.


If you’re the kind of person who cringes at the sight of a word with a ‘z’ where there ought to be an ‘s’ (“look at all these Americanisms… it’s just not proper English!”), tells the joyful tale of how Thomas Crapper, toilet mogul, lent his name to the act (“before that they didn’t have a rude word for it”), and gets hot under the collar when people mispronounce niche (“It’s NEESH!”), then prepare to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed and slightly cross. It’s never nice when someone shows you how wrong you are.

Authors Patricia O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman pair up again, after writing You Send Me and running the popular website (which you should definitely visit). O’Conner is the bestselling author of several books on the English language, including Woe is I. A former editor at the New York Times, O’Conner has written for many outlets over the years, and it shows. Her engaging, clear, readable, witty style makes sailing through her books a breeze. Written in her voice, Origins is no exception.

I read the paperback version of the book and, while I’m a big advocate of the idea that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I do want to comment on it. The book is delightfully floppy. It’s nice to hold, which makes its page-turning quality even more enjoyable. And the cover itself is vibrant and eye-catching. Dead easy to locate on my bookshelf.

Origins of the Specious addresses several misconceptions, concluding that:

  • The common contention of the British that American spelling is ruining the language is misguided: American spelling is often closer to the original English. Same goes for pronunciation
  • The assertion of some old-school grammarians that you shouldn’t split infinitives, and any number of other rules, is outdated. Language evolves. And you can start a sentence with ‘And’
  • Sometimes incorrect English falls into common use, becoming acceptable (think ‘ain’t’ and double negatives)
  • The origins of some of our best swear words aren’t as fun as you think (ship high in transport; kunda; Thomas Crapper – all wrong)
  • You don’t just sound a bit silly if you throw a lot of French phrases into your speech – you’re probably using phrases made of French words that the English invented

I could go on, but that would spoil the surprise.

One of my favourite sections of the book is all about plurals; specifically Latin versus Greek word endings. Have you ever stumbled over how to refer to the octopus when you want to talk about more than one of them? I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people plump hopefully for ‘octopi’. Incorrect. The authors explain delightfully that this common mistake is down to the Latinists, who replaced all the Greek word endings with Latin ones (octopi instead of octopodes, or octopuses as is now accepted; gymnasia instead of gymnasiums; syllabi instead of syllabuses), happily making them sound pompous. Incidentally, this section also helped me calm down a bit about paninis. (“Would you refer to a piece of spaghetti as a spaghetto?” – p185.)

This is one of the most entertaining romps through language I’ve had in a long time. It’s beautifully written, hilariously funny and at times unbelievably shocking. That’s what makes it so good – it makes you question yourself, your own beliefs about the language. It’s brilliantly researched (although reaching the notes section at page 205 of 266 made me feel sad that I hadn’t prepared myself for the end) and expertly executed.

I highly recommend this book. It’s on my list of books to read for a second time.

Origins of the Specious
Random House, New York, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-8129-7810-0

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