June 04, 2015


The Weird World of Words: A Guided Tour. By Mitchell Symons. Illustrated by Andrew Pinder. Zest Books. $11.99.

Fart Squad #1. By Seamus Pilger. Illustrated by Stephen Gilpin. Harper. $4.99.

     Anyone with a modicum, nay, a mere scintilla of interest in the peregrinations of the English language will be delighted, even regaled, by Mitchell Symons’ assemblage in potpourri form of a multiplicity of manifestations of lingual quiddities in The Weird World of Words. But Symons delivers his data in a far more user-friendly fashion than does the first sentence of this article. His book is a highly personal compendium of information on word derivations, unusual types of words and word characteristics, words and phrases invented or popularized by Shakespeare, portmanteau words, oxymorons, expressions that come from baseball, words of Yiddish or Jewish origin, and a whole series of genuine entries that are laugh-provoking because of the way they use words in medical records, on insurance forms, in tax offices, on airlines, in song titles and elsewhere. Much information here is truly surprising: the word “earthling” was first found in print in 1593, the words “acid rain” in 1858, the word “hairdresser” in 1771, and the words “Milky Way” in 1384 – and even earlier in Latin. There is an explanation of why the word “colonel” is pronounced “kernel” – it has to do with the word coming into English as two separate words that became one. There are “kangaroo words,” which contain within themselves, with letters in the correct order, the words of a synonym or near-synonym, as for example “demeaning” contains “mean,” “entwined” contains “tied,” and “calumnies” contains “lies.” There are words naming things you did not know had names: “gambrinous” is the state of being full of beer, “gruntle” is a pig’s snout, “drupelets” are the bumps on raspberries, and “lemniscate” is the infinity symbol, for instance. There are words whose meaning has changed over time: “awful” originally meant “inspiring wonder,” “stultify” meant “to declare insane,” and “basement” meant “toilet.” Here are the derivations of the word “gobbledygook” and the phrase “it’s not over till the fat lady sings.” Here are all the winning words in U.S. spelling bees dating back to 1925 – which show, interestingly, that the winners used to be reasonably common words (gladiolus, asceticism, knack, deteriorating) but in recent years have become monstrously abstruse (ursprache, serrefine, stromuhr, guetapens). Also here is information on misleading words and names: French fries come from Belgium and Great Danes from Germany, fireflies are actually beetles, and ten-gallon hats hold about six pints of water. There are explanations of malapropisms and spoonerisms, which many people have heard of – and mondegreens, which most people probably think they have never encountered, but which are simply misheard song lyrics (e.g., in the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There,” the words “now I’ll never dance with another” heard as “now I’ll never dance with her mother”). There are little-known-outside-healthcare medical expressions, such as “digging for worms” meaning “varicose-vein surgery”; odd newspaper headlines, such as “Man Struck by Lightning Faces Battery Charge”; and bumper stickers: “Learn from your parents’ mistakes – use birth control,” “Sorry, I don’t date outside my species,” “Not all dumbs are blonde,” and so forth. Yes, this is a short book (192 pages with plenty of white space), and yes, the material is presented in scattershot fashion, and yes, there are errors here and there (such as misspelling both “graffiti” and “graffito”); but The Weird World of Words is packed with so much fun – and so much genuinely intriguing material – that readers will enjoy dwelling on page after page.

     One of those pages offers some unfortunate-but-genuine addresses of Web sites, such as the one for Speed of Art, www.speedofart.com. And that brings us to, or as close as we would like to get to, Fart Squad #1. Expulsions of intestinal gas are, of course, completely normal and occur in approximately 100% of the human race. And they have attracted, if that is the right word, a number of very learned thinkers: Jonathan Swift, best known for Gulliver’s Travels, also wrote The Benefit of Farting Explain’d, in which he stated that there are at least five "different species of farts…which are perfectly distinct from each other, both in weight and smell. First, the sonorous and full-toned, or rousing fart; second, the double fart; third, the soft fizzing fart; fourth, the wet fart; and fifth, the sullen wind-bound fart." Swift’s essay dates to 1722 and was so popular that it went through 13 editions by 1727. The subject has, um, produced a number of kids’ books in our own time, notably the Walter the Farting Dog series, whose first entry dates to 2001 and sold nearly a million and a half copies in 10 years – and was translated into multiple languages, including, in 2004, Latin (Canis Inflatus, a particularly, err, euphonious title). So the new series by Seamus Pilger, illustrated by Stephen Gilpin, has a certain amount of history, aahhh, behind it. No one outside the target age range of 6-10 is likely to mistake Fart Squad for literature, and at least some readers in the target age range will likely, hmmmm, turn up their noses at its unremitting silliness and obviousness. Others, though, will surely find it funny. The story is a typical sort-of-superhero one, involving four kids at Harry Buttz Elementary School (get it?) who eat some particularly noxious burritos that have been reheated so many times that they have become radioactive – causing very peculiar gas emissions from the four: one gets explosive power, one is able to fly, one has an extreme version of the silent-but-deadly gas expulsion, and one ends up with a timer of sorts (the effects of what comes out are delayed). Naturally, the four need someone to show them the, shall we say, ropes, and that someone is the school janitor, Stan, who is accustomed to dealing with smells and declares himself not their sensei but their scent-sei. The rest of the plot in this opening, um, salvo involves “the Golden Scratcher, a magical golden butt scratcher” buried beneath the school and about to be dug up by some of the usual nefarious-bully types. It is probably safest to declare Fart Squad #1 a (+++) book for those of a particularly odoriferous persuasion, and to let it go at that. Parents whose kids insist that they really, really want to read this book and all its inevitable successors would likely do best just to hold their noses and give in, saving themselves both headaches and upset stomachs.

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