4 out of 4 stars
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When is a murder not a crime? Who are the members of a congress?
In Wordstruck!, Susanna Janssen passionately shares her unique romance with the most faithful of lovers: words! Having been born to an Italian mamma and a Dutch vader, she has love for language stamped in her DNA. Add to this her early exposure to Catholic masses in Latin! The book details how she fell in love with words – and the remarkable languages, cultures, and pun times that go with them.
Do you know that the highly creative Shakespeare originated the hopelessly corny “Knock, knock” jokes? Are you willing to bet that a gram of prevention is better than a kilo of cure? Have you any idea that words vie yearly for the coveted “Word of the Year” title? There are languages that have unique terms that cannot be translated into English without using several words (or even many phrases), for instance, the evocative Russian word toska.
Susanna gives tips on how to spot liars and lets you practice them using William Jefferson Clinton’s press pronouncement in 1998 about him and that woman. Do you know that “villain” used to mean the innocent “worker in a villa”? Learn the disastrous effects of using the wrong preposition: try it with the verb “break” (and the prepositions in, out, up, down, ad infinitum) for an exciting sampling. Know the secret of staying awake while cruising along those lonely highways. (Clue: Mind those quirky billboards!) A Frenchman can call his sweetheart Ma Puce (literally “My Flea”), and she will stick to him forever!
The reader will have all the above and more! While feeding your brain with her collection of enchanting trivia about words - which she touts as the greatest human creation, Susanna will also effortlessly tickle your funny bone. The lady is a natural comic. There is also the bonus lesson that she drills into the reader: learning a second language will keep the demon called Alzheimer’s Disease at bay; this is no idle claim as scientific evidence abounds to support it.
This book offers many hours of enlightenment, excitement, and entertainment. Anyone who is fascinated with words will devour this book with gusto. Those who speak Spanish will fall in amor with the book. Spanish is the author’s second language, and she relates many happy experiences with the lengua. She is also gaining proficiency in her mother’s tongue and hopefully her father’s, too.
Susanna compiled most of the material from her long-running semi-monthly newspaper column, “A Word in Edgewise,” in the Ukiah Daily Journal in California. All articles are well-researched, pack a punch (and a punchline or two), and have catchy titles. “U.S. and Them” is one.
I am myself awed by the power of words, and Susanna made me even more so. While I did a little College Spanish, I have let this prime knowledge rot in the deep cupboards of my brain. It’s time to summon it back. Susanna shares that the secret to succeeding in anything (including learning a second language) is to keep at it. Thus, the book also inspires the doubting Thomases like me. ("I’m too old!," "I’m too busy!," and "I’m too whatever!" are not acceptable excuses.)
The author also employs the interactive approach in some chapters, giving the reader quizzes and homework to ponder. This is a treat for game fanatics like me.
I only have a couple of things for the author’s consideration. The “Dictionary Game” which she apparently invented is fun, but the scoring is not so clear. Also, there are grammar rules shared in “Grammurder” which do not follow strict convention, particularly for the tricky words “neither” and “none.” (When even English grammarians quarrel over these rules, how can I fault Susanna?)
In this sea of wonderful messages, I fished out less than a handful of typos and a preference for the semicolon as a super-comma. These lapses are inconsequential and do not impact on the reading pleasure.
I give this outstanding book 4 out of 4 stars. I cannot give it less for the memorable experience I gained from reading it. By the way, the word of the year for 2017 (chosen by the most prestigious American Dialect Society that started the tradition in 1991) is “fake news”! That term certainly trumped many other contenders.
As to the questions about murders and congresses, here are the simple answers.
First question – when it refers to a flock of crows
Second question - salamanders (though “baboons” feels like the better answer)
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