Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Book 11 of 2013: Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins by Linda & Roger Flavell

This is the last book in a set of four books about the history of word and phrase origins, I say the last, but it's the last I came to read. It's actually the first to have been published but I started at the wrong end of the little display box! I wouldn't say this spoilt my reading of the series, if anything it felt like the more logical progression for the series.

Dictionary of Idioms and Their Origins looks at the history of everyday idioms in the English language and investigates what they mean, how they came to be used and how their meaning has changed over time. Each listing includes relevant quotes which demonstrate the idioms use in a variety of sources; everything from Sunday magazines to texts which are hundreds of years old.

I found this to be an interesting look at where these sayings come from. It's one of those things that I do find myself thinking about; why should you be the 'apple of one's eye'? How did that become a way of saying one person really likes another?

As I'd expected, there was a bit of an overlap between this one and the book about proverb origins. Some of the sayings were featured in both. It's unlikely you'd really notice this unless you were actually reading the books in quick succession, after all, they are designed to be reference books to dip in and out of, not to read from cover to cover as I have!

I was a bit surprised at the number of entries that didn't actually tell you where the phrase came from. Plenty of them had a good guess or gave several possible scenarios for the origins of the phrase in question. To begin with it frustrated me when I came across entries which couldn't give definite information but I guess sometimes you just can't know everything, particularly with a language like English which is constantly changing and evolving.

When I read the book about proverbs I complained that the alphabetical organisation seemed a little arbitrary. In this one it worked a lot better. I suppose that's due to the nature of idioms, they tend to have one obvious subject which can be identified as the key word for the entry. There is also an index at the back for looking up some of the more elusive ones.

I'm not sure whether this book has been updated since it was first published in 1992. It does show some signs of it's age, particularly when there's mentions of popular culture. There were also idioms which I was expecting to see, that didn't get a mention; obviously they couldn't fit everything into this book but I was surprised to see some phrases I've never even heard of before being included with a note about how they're now obsolete.

I'm definitely hanging onto this set of books for reference for the future. You never know when you might want to look up something like this, particularly if you're a linguistics geek like me. I'd definitely recommend them all as reference books, though they're a bit dry if you're wanting to read from cover to cover!

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