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Wordwatching by Alex Horne

Reviewed by Steve Bennett

If there’s one thing you can be fairly certain that avid book-readers like, it’s words. And if you like words, you’ll like Alex Horne’s second book. What a virtuous circle that is.

Wordwatching takes as its starting point that indefinable moment when new words are forged. You may call a spade a spade, but who did it first? And why did that catch on when, presumably, there were other contenders never did. Why isn’t it a soilspoon?

Approaching his tkday – or 10,000th day on Earth – Horne decided he wanted to leave a permanent mark on history, and as a lover of language and devout Countdown fan, he decided that the best way to do that would be to get a new word into the dictionary. Words like ‘bollo’ as street slang for rubbish or ‘demi’ for 50p. Well, Horne thinks, if Beyonce can get bootilicious into the language, surely it can’t be that hard.

Turns out that it is. When it comes to establishing that a term is legit, the lexicographical gatekeepers at the Oxford English Dictionary don’t just take your word. Horne had to establish a caucus of examples to demonstrate that each of his ten neologisms were in widespread use.

Thus the scene is set for a Gormanesque challenge-cum-social experiment, as Horne the ‘verbal gardener’ tries to sow his linguistic seeds. He is heartened by the way jokes spread. When he sees a gag he wrote replicated in other forms, he’s not enraged by the plagiarism but delighted by the successful spreading of this particular meme.

As a comedian he also has occasional access to the media, allowing him to drop his new argot into print or on to screen. But he needs to up his game if he’s to achieve his goal – even if it meant risking the ire of Wikipedia and TV presenter Victoria Coren en route.

His mission, and its success or failure, may prove the premise for the book, but it’s actually rather incidental. While Horne’s 2008 Edinburgh Fringe show of the same name focussed more on the personal quest – which took him all the way to the hallowed hotseat of a Vorderman-era Countdown showdown – the book covers a lot more etymological ground.

It’s jam-packed with anecdotes about the origins of words, even though many are shrouded in mystery. But if there’s ever any confusion about the source, Horne always chooses the most entertaining option, he is a comedian after all.

Among the true yarns are that for a long time, dictionaries defined the word ‘dord’ as meaning density, when really it was a typesetters misreading of the line: ‘D or d: Density’; that there really was a Mr Maverick who was such a nonconformist his name became a byword for it; and that an American advertising executive once came up with a new punctuation mark to replace the ?! combination, which he delightfully dubbed the interrobang.

But one of Horne’s etymologies is deliberately wrong, as he freely admits without confession which one. It’s based on the idea of a mountweazle – another fabulous word and the name given to a made-up word that dictionary editors place into their volumes to guard against copyright theft. If that ‘mountweazle’ appears elsewhere, they know they’ve been robbed.

And that’s just scratching the surface. If obtuse QI-style trivia is your cup of tea, you really ought to get your paddles on this jaunty tome. As befits Horne’s twin strengths of being an intelligent comedian and dedicated logophile, every page educates, informs and entertains. BBC founder Lord Reith would be proud…

  • Wordwatching by Alex Horne is published today by Virgin Books, priced £11.99. Click here to order from Amazon at £7.19.

Posted: 14 Jan 2010

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