11

Nov

2009

Rain Taxi reviews Wajnryb

 

One of my favorite Cambridge books I’ve read in the past couple years is Ruth Wajnryb’s You Know What I Mean?. Wajnryb is an Australian language expert (the English language, that is) who parses the slipperiness of meaning in general.

Abby Travis just reviewed it for the Rain Taxi Review – have a read:

Words are supposed to be solid and reliable, the basic building blocks with which we create structures like sentences, paragraphs, books—and, through these, meaning. This hardly seems like a revelatory thought, but as with many structures, a great deal occurred over time to create the meaning that these very words contain. Ruth Wajnryb’s latest book, You Know What I Mean?, attempts to tackle the oddities of meaning: how certain words and phrases have developed over time, how they behave, what forces dictate the changes in language today, and why we choose the words we do.

Although Wajnryb is generally successful, readers looking for a cohesive whole may be disappointed. Her book comprises ten chapters, each of which tackle a different subject like “Gender,” “Text-types,” or “Word Biographies”; these are divided into even shorter essays that are usually under two pages. For a book 225 pages long, this results in over 100 essays, and in order to tie these essays together, each chapter’s half-page introduction invariably unleashes some variation of the dreaded “This section contains…” Wajnryb’s goal is to demystify various aspects of an often-confusing language, so one can’t really blame her for taking the most direct approach; unfortunately, the elementary introduction doesn’t always set up a flawless demystification, and the brief nature of her essays rarely offers enough space to explain fully the “why” factor she claims to resolve. While sometimes the essays merely end on some witty note or pun, in some instances she actually concedes that there is no explanation—, for example, in terms of reduplicative words (such as “fuddy-duddy,” “heebie-jeebies,” or even “reduplicative” itself) she writes, “I’ve searched but haven’t yet unearthed an explanation. Sometimes, illogically, we just repeat ourselves. Repeat ourselves.” At least she gets the point across.

What Wajnryb does quite well is pique her reader’s interest, maintaining it through contemporary references and the occasional tangent, all with the added bonus of her keen, snarky humor. The American reader will learn a little something about Australian politics and what the Collins Australian Dictionary has to say about the contained definition or origins of a word (she uses the Oxford English Dictionary quite frequently as well). Topics vary from grammar basics (“you” and “me” do not simply refer to me and you), to the linguist’s cringe at poorly worded signs (we’ve all been there), to war words. “Vietnam,” for example, is no longer just a place, it has morphed into an entire concept. She refers to Saddam Hussein on multiple occasions, but also returns to “Dogese” (the conversational tone and level of informality that occurs when dog owners meet and converse briefly while out for a walk with their companions) several times as well. The ephemeral nature of Wajnryb’s plethora of topics is probably best suited for the ephemeral reader (if you can figure that out, you’re ready for the book).

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