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Book Review: Words of a Feather

I recently spent a pleasant Saturday morning reading "Words of a Feather: A Humorous Puzzlement of Etymological Pairs" by Murray Suid. Suid is the author of one of my favorite writing reference books, Demonic Mnemonics, and his latest work is another volume that will tickle writers and word lovers alike.

Words of a Feather examines words that have similar origins but have, over time and usage, drifted apart from each other. Sometimes the result of Suid's couplings are enlightening, such as "menu" and "minute." The book reveals that they share the Latin root of "minitus;" a small unit of time. In France, a "menu de repas," was a small description of foods provided to customers in order to spare the waiter's time in taking orders. From there, we arrive at “menu.”

Some of the word pairs are suprising, such as "fornicate" and "furnace," which are related because Ancient Roman prostitutes used to look for customers near the arch-shaped ovens, or “fornus,” where bread was baked and offered for sale.

Occasionally the word couplets confirm what you always suspected, but lacking Suid's yen for linguistic archeology and sheer persistance, have never investigated for yourself. For example, who hasn't at least noticed that "shirt" and "skirt" are very similar? In Words of a Feather you'll learn that shirt derives from the Old English word "scyrte" for tunic, whose style was similar to a short coat. The word skirt comes from the Old Norman "skyrte," also referring to clothing, but in the peasent style of a long shirt. From there, Suid goes on to explain how the terms apply to today's styles.

In addition to using research and witty observations, Suid also brings words together with his own intuition. For example, he relates the modern "blog" with "log," which derives from a ship's "logbook" where sailors kept record of the vessel's speed. So-called because the speed was measured by how quickly the ship passed a log floating in the water.

This is a book that is best consumed, if you'll pardon the metaphor, in small pecks. Its compact size makes it easy to carry--it would be a great book to bring on your next flight--and the page design is attractive and easy to skim. There are a number of delightful illustrations, too, but sometimes they're not next to the words they are intended to enhance, which diminishes their impact. I'd also consider adding an index to make it easier to find specific words. You'll want to do this because you're likely to find facts to share with your friends, some of whom will certainly ask for documentation of your amazing claims.

But as enjoyable and entertaining as the book is, my favorite parts appear on its final pages. The annotated list of references, many of which are online, is quite usefu. But the hidden gem is a fifteen page chapter called "word factory." It’s a wonderfully organized and informative discussion of etymology and word-making processes. I wish this had been at the front of the book, but it is somewhat academic so I can understand why it wasn't. Placing it there would undermine the book’s subtitle declaration of being humourous. However, I think reading Word Factory first will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the fun parts. It might feel like eating your vegatables before dessert, but that too, is a good idea.

Words of a Feather is funny, esoteric, and informative. It doesn't disappoint in any regard, and it gives you both the appetite and tools to do some word sleuthing on your own. I think its a worthy addition to your library.

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