A review of Weeds in the Garden of Words by Kate Burridge

Like a true gardener, Burridge’s love for language is never so strict or pompous that it excludes admiration for what is truly beautiful or unique, even if it is as pernicious and destructive as a weedy plant. Like her very entertaining ABC radio show, Soundbank, Burridge brings charm, generosity and tolerance to an area which often attracts pedants. In all instances her goal is to provide interesting linguistic facts, a sense of the variability of language, a feeling for how words develop, and above all, a sense of useage—that is, the human side of word progression.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Weeds in the Garden of Words:
Further Observations on the Tangled History of the English Language
by Kate Burridge
ABC Books
August 2004, Paperback, ISBN 0733314104, rrp $24.95

Do you just love words? Are you a mean Scrabble player? Do you feel strongly about right and wrong useage, or just wonder about the origins of some of those expressions teenagers seem to create? Kate Burridge brings heavy duty linguistics expertise, along with her own delight in the etmylogy and semiology of words to her new book, Weeds in the Garden of Words. Garden weeds is a metaphor which shapes and structures the book, which contains chapters on lexical weeks like jargon, slang, euphemism, word origins and meaning shifts, grammatical weeds, sound and spelling weeds, and nasty weeds like the words we use to describe mental illness, overt political correctness, and advertising slogans. Each chapter begins with a quote on the most relevant type of weed from a prominent garden writer – from CW Earle to Vita Sackville West, and there are many parallels drawn between the positive and negative aspects of garden weeds and linguistic weeds. Like a true gardener, Burridge’s love for language is never so strict or pompous that it excludes admiration for what is truly beautiful or unique, even if it is as pernicious and destructive as a weedy plant. Like her very entertaining ABC radio show, Soundbank, Burridge brings charm, generosity and tolerance to an area which often attracts pedants. In all instances her goal is to provide interesting linguistic facts, a sense of the variability of language, a feeling for how words develop, and above all, a sense of useage—that is, the human side of word progression.

Burridge’s writing style is as lighthearted and entertaining as her speaking style, and the book is full of interesting sidebars, examples, anecdotes, ideosyncracies, and curiosities. She draws on her vast experience as a linguist, but also on the many questions and comments she’s fielded as ABC Radio’s Southbank’s presenter. Although the exploration of words goes back to the beginning’s of English as a language, Weeds in the Garden of Words is also modern and relevant, dealing with such issues as “hip” or teenage expressions:

Words, phrases and even affixes come in and out of fashion, and like modes of dressing they sometimes attain almost voguish popularity. For some reasons certain ones are taken up by a number of speakers and become buzz words. Suddenly they’re everwhere. And like the lengths of hemlines and trouser legs, they’re also usually short-lived—soon to be replaced by other buzz words. In some areas this generates a kind of semantic treadmill. When we buried the cat’s whiskers there was no shortage of replacements. They included far out and ace. When these were no longer ‘hip’, they were supplanted by cool (this one has made something of a comeback). More recently we have seen cool fall by the wayside, pushed out by wicked. However, I gatehr no self-respecting teenager would be caught dead uttering wicked these days. The ‘cool dudes’ of the new millennium use the expression phat (or fat) for something that is ‘outstanding’ or ‘first-rate’ – I’d probably descrite it as ‘the bee’s knees’. (42)

Other areas that Burridge takes on include the PC grammar checker’s take on the passive:

Green squiggly lines now altert me to grammatical errors, infelicities of style, and all those other horrors of my writing. Of course I can turn it off. But the truth is, as irritating as I find them, it is also stragenly fascinating to see those green squiggly lines appear (all too frequently) underneath parts of my prose…with the right vocabulary, passives can make even the most simple and mundane topics sound complex and profound…(112-114)

Or the way the advertising industry makes use of sex to sell products:

But what about visual ephemism? So much food and drink advertising these days is accompanied by beautiful photography, by gorgeous images of the items being promoted—and often, of course, gorgeous images of things whose connection with the products is quite remote.(205)

All in all, this is a fun, thought provoking guide which exposes a number of misconceptions about the etymology of language, and above all, plays the kinds of games with language which will have you thinking about the words you use, and don’t use, in a much deeper, more meaningful way. The scholarship is solid, and draws on the long history of English, from Chaucer through Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Tolkien, and many more modern writers, speakers, and linguistic historians. Despite the impeccible scholarship, Burridge keeps the pace quick, and the tone informative, and light, so that it never becomes dry or academic. If you love words, and tend to notice the way in which people communicate, you will certainly love this book.

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