Category Archives: Book review

Different reads for different needs: my top 3

I have at least one book on the go in every room of the house. An easy read next to the bed, something unsettling in the kitchen, a few laughs in the living room, a dip-in in the office, a page-turner in the toilet. Think about it, you don’t always need the same thing from what you’re reading. To me, only reading one book at a time would be like only watching Workin’ Moms: not enough diversity or depth.

Since today is Book Lovers Day, I thought I’d put together a short selection of books that are great to pick up for different needs.

Inspiration or a creative boost:

A new point of view:

A change of scenery:

A bit of perspective:

Good company:

Real life:

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments… I’m always looking for a good recommendation!

And if you’d like to read some fantastic books with a group of brilliant people, check out Bucket List Book Club.

Sunday book review: English Pronouncing Dictionary

Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary
Daniel Jones (revised by A.C. Gimson)


The other day Joeri asked me a question: “am I pronouncing ‘either’ properly?” Yes, I said, because he was. He was saying ‘eether’. Then he followed up with a second question: “so it’s not ‘either’ then?” Yes, I said, because it is. He was saying ‘eyether’. He looked confused and I couldn’t explain it to him.

So when I saw an old edition (1977) of Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary at my new favourite second hand English bookshop, I couldn’t resist.

This is the first pronouncing dictionary I’ve ever owned and, I have to say, it makes me feel super clever. Open it up on any page, and you find yourself looking at a bunch of semi-recognizable letters that make absolutely no sense. I took a deep breath, wondering if it was just a bit too complicated for me. But after reading the very interesting and nicely written introduction, I was ready to tackle some of the trickiest words around: moustache was my first stop, controversy my second.

Written in 1917, the first edition of the English Pronouncing Dictionary ‘described the type of pronunciation recorded as “that most usually heard in everyday speech. In the families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding-schools.”‘ This led to the name Public School Pronunciation (PSP), which was updated to Received Pronunciation (RP) in the 1937 edition.

The editor of the Fourteenth edition notes that society – and pronunciation – has moved on since these terms were created and, with no clear separation between classes, education and accent, PSP is certainly a thing of the past. The RP, the standard pronunciation used by BBC newsreaders at the time the book was written (1979), is applied in the book, with less common pronunciations indicated throughout.

After reading about the history of standard pronunciation and earlier editions of the book, I studied the notation. The characters are all familiar, but many are oddly positioned – an upside-down e here, a strangely wide u there. Even a brief look at the grid of notations equipped me to flick through a few pages and recognize the pronunciation of some recognizable, simple words. And what about either?

According to this 1977 edition of the Dictionary, either is pronounced ‘eyether’ (although not written like this… My keyboard is not equipped to show you how it really looks). A second, perfectly acceptable but less often used pronunciation appears in square brackets: [‘eether’].


Both are correct. And I do use both, depending on how the word sounds within a sentence and how much empasis I want to put on it.

So far, I’ve managed to waste at least 90 minutes flicking through this lovely book and testing my pronunciation against the norm. Endless entertainment, if slightly outdated in its context. I would say this is a great addition to any bookshelf. It’s now sitting neatly next to my OED.


Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary, Fourteenth Edition
Daniel Jones
J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1977

Sunday book review: The Deeper Meaning of Liff

The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Douglas Adams and John Lloyd

Pan-32220 Adams & Lloyd Deeper Meaning of Liff

Liff (n.)
A common object or experience for which no word yet exists.

This year, the wonderful Meaning of Liff and I share a milestone birthday. Imagine my excitement at the prospect of a sequel to this masterpiece 30 years after the first edition. So it seemed like a good time to read the version on my bookshelf again in anticipation.

Written by the unstoppable duo Douglas Adams (if you haven’t read the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy of five, you are missing out on some magic) and John Lloyd (QI creator), The Deeper Meaning of Liff is a hilarious dictionary-style book that assigns meanings to place names.

In the preface of the original book, The Meaning of Liff (1983), Adams and Lloyd explain: ‘Our job, as we see it, is to get these words down off the signposts and into the mouths of babes and sucklings and so on, where they can start earning their keep…’

In the extended 1990 version I read, this leads to a brilliantly funny back-and-forth between the two authors, played out through each edition of the book released between 1983 and 1990. Undoubtedly the best preface I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it is a wonderful indication of their great partnership – one that results in unstoppable giggling.

The book begins with a series of maps – one for each letter of the alphabet. At first it seems that they intend to show the locations of the place names featured in the book. But the more you turn pages, the more you see they are comically skewed, squashed and manipulated, reflecting some of the ridiculous diagrammatic representations of simple things we see on a daily basis. My personal favourite is P – a grid of one square wide by three tall, with coordinates A1, B1 and C1. In A1 is an image of the UK, B1 shows the whole planet, and C1 Australia. Place names starting with P are assigned grid coordinates.

The main part of the book is set out like a dictionary – alphabetically, with recognizable abbreviations describing the words. All the words are place names (mostly in the UK but some further afield) and have been assigned meanings that do not yet have a word. The meanings give a wonderful insight into every day life and personal experiences we don’t often discuss.

Here are a few that I think we should try to get into the OED:

Abilene (adj.)
Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.

Albacete (n.)
A single surprisingly long hair growing in the middle of nowhere.

Lingle (vb.)
To touch battery terminals with one’s tongue.

The meanings sometimes come from the feeling you get from a word, or its sound or to the place itself. It’s fun to find places you know whose meanings really reflect your experience:

Bude (n.)
A polite joke reserved for use in the presence of vicars.

Farnham (n.)
The feeling that you get at about four o’clock in the afternoon when you haven’t got enough done.

The Deeper Meaning of Liff is packed full of toilet humour:

Riber (n.)
The barely soiled sheet of toilet paper which signals the end of the bottom-wiping process.

There are many ways to read a book like this. You could dip in and out, use the maps as a guide, look up the places you’ve visited, or search by subject in the index. I read it cover to cover. I think that makes the illustrations even more delightful – springing up every now and again to add more description to a few selected words.


Glenwhilly (n.)
(Scots) A small tartan pouch worn beneath the kilt during the thistle-harvest.

(Incidentally, the illustrator, Bert Kitchen, is responsible for a brilliant appendix. It’s a drawing of the internal organs, pointing out the appendix. Funny, clever and educational.)

When I say I read the book cover to cover, that includes the index. I’m pretty sure it’s the only index I’ve read in its entirety. This entry for legs explains why:

extremely unwelcome things up. Scrabster
false, improvised: Ludlow
things not underneath: High Limerigg
things underneath: Hucknall
unwelcome things down: Wimbledon
unwelcome things on: Pollock
unwelcome things up: Affpuddle
useless: Clun
welcome things up: Burwash

This book is inspired and inspiring. It’s funny, witty, extremely well planned and beautifully executed. 30 years after the first edition, it remains relevant and original. This wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, and it certainly won’t be the last.

Now. As of today, there are 109 days until August, when the next iteration of this masterpiece is set to be published. According to The Guardian, ‘Over the last decade, QI founder John Lloyd has been “patiently squirrelling away” new examples to create Afterliff, which will also include contributions from Adams’s daughter Polly Adams and his old friend novelist Jon Canter.’

Needless to say I can’t wait!


The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Pan Books, London, 1990; ISBN 0-330-31606-0

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