Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Nathan Bierma: The Complete Series

Posted by Neal on November 10, 2009

Think of it more as a bathroom readerIt’s a bittersweet moment when you see a boxed set of DVDs for a show you liked, like Freaks and Geeks or Firefly, and the subtitle says not “Season 1” or “Season 4” or what have you, but “The Complete Series”. On the one hand, you get the entire series! On the other hand, bummer — they can only say “The Complete Series” when the series is over, and they can only fit it into one boxed set when it got canceled after just a season or two. That’s the feeling I’ve been getting as I read Nathan Bierma’s The Eclectic Encyclopedia of English, published just this year by the same people who brought you Far From the Madding Gerund. (Yes, it’s another piece of blog swag: Editor Tom Sumner at William, James & Co. sent it to me personally.) Nathan Bierma was The Chicago Tribune‘s answer to William Safire of The New York Times Magazine and Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe. I say was not because he’s dead (at least as of this writing), but because the column ran only from 2004 to 2008. The EEE is a collection of Bierma’s columns from this time period.

Bierma’s style is more like Jan Freeman’s than William Safire’s; as the blurb on the back from Erin McKean states, he’s “interested more in the ‘why?’ of language than the ‘don’ts.'” His background is mainly in teaching English, but he has a regular set of linguists, etymologists, and lexicographers that he calls upon to offer insights on whatever question he’s writing about, among them Grant Barrett, Anatoly Liberman, Mark Liberman, Erin McKean, Geoff Nunberg, Geoff Pullum, Dave Wilton, Ben Zimmer, and Arnold Zwicky. Some of the entries that I’ve found especially informative or insightful feature:

  • five changes to English that were so profound that nobody should even think about complaining about the kind of stuff that they complain about now
  • how even though anxious and eager are often used as synonyms, anxiety and eagerness remain strongly differentiated
  • a comparison of back in the day and back in my day
  • one reason raise the question is not a good substitute for the ignorant often-frowned-upon usage of beg the question
  • a smackdown between Bierma and Martha Brockenbrough, promoter of National Grammar Day and founder of SPOGG (Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar)
  • a comparison of Hispanic vs. Latino (a topic often discussed in my family when we lived in El Paso, Texas)
  • the demise of I’m all and the hand of I’m like
  • a history of I’m good to mean No, thank you
  • the semantic shift of journey to be almost always metaphorical
  • a debunking of a stupid etymology of lost
  • an easy-to-follow introduction to the Northern Cities Vowel Shift
  • how pay one’s respects came to so strongly connote visiting a dead person

There is an occasional misstep. For example, in his entry for lay/lie, Bierma points out why it’s so hard to maintain the semantic distinction between them, but missed an opportunity to mention that it’s no coincidence they sound so much alike (since one was a causative form of the other in Old English). At least there was no misinformation in that entry. In the entry on the omissibility of that in relative clauses, Bierma says that as far as he knows, “there’s no clear guideline. It’s a matter of feel.” Well, there are some guidelines. For instance, the that has to stay if it’s serving as the relative clause’s subject (as in the bag that leaked). Worse, Bierma says that that tomorrow things will get better is a relative clause in the sentence I’ll tell him that tomorrow things will get better.

However, such errors and missed opportunities are (mostly) outweighed by Bierma’s modus operandi of “seeking out scholars who might have the information he’s looking for and then actually listening” (as Arnold Zwicky’s blurb puts it). What I found even more distracting was the organization of the book. Unlike a DVD boxed set, the columns in EEE are not arranged in order of publication. That’s not a problem: Chronological order doesn’t suit a format like a weekly column. Instead, as the title suggests, the arrangement is alphabetical, as in an encyclopedia. Unfortunately, this arrangement doesn’t work so well, either. Even though the columns are broken up into bigger and smaller pieces depending on how much Bierma had to say on the various topics in them, many of the entries contain disparate items that (in an alphabetical arrangement) should have been separated. For example, there’s an entry on eon and dilemma. What do these words have in common? Are they part of some idiom? Are they easily confused? Either of those possibilities would have been news to me. Instead, it was just that one Greek reader had asked about them both, as loan words from Greek whose English meaning differed from the Greek. If they had to share an entry, maybe it could have been on Greek loan words. Another example is the entry February and jewelry. They’re together because one of Bierma’s readers vented two peeves in one letter: the pronunciations “Feb-yuary” and “joolery.” Thank goodness for the index.

Other peculiarities arise from the attempt to force a collection of columns into an encyclopedia format. One column was about Erin McKean and her work on the downloadable version of The New Oxford American Dictionary, but instead of just being presented as a (perhaps lightly revised) version of a column Bierma wrote, it’s shoved between entries on diagramming sentences and did you not, and labeled dictionaries, coexistence of handheld technologies. Many times a column that was clearly a book review appears under some heading like this, which can be deceptive. For example, an entry labeled pedantry, history and misguidedness of is really a review of David Crystal’s book The Fight for English: How the Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left. The label led me to expect something more general and inclusive than just what was in Crystal’s book. In fact, this is a complaint about the entire book: Encyclopedia suggests a comprehensive (or at least systematic) survey of some field of knowledge, but EEE actually just covers the topics that Nathan Bierma happened to write about in his column.

In other entries, the attempts to scrub the entries of their dates to make them more timeless seem pointless. When Bierma says, “Here in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I lined up along the motorcade route to pay my respects as President Gerald Ford’s funeral procession passed by,” why not just say, “In December 2006,” or just give the column’s publication date and go with the more natural “Last week”? The same goes for the book reviews that no longer coincide with the book’s publication, and have to specifically mention the date. Sometimes the scrubbing is incomplete, and deictic references like “this month” survive, hidden in the middle of the entry, as in the entry about Eskimo snow vocabulary.

To some extent, I can understand tinkering with the format of a weekly column before putting it into a book. Jan Freeman tells me that publishers tend to be wary of books that simply collect columns, because reading them one after another can get tiresome. What I think would have done is to divide the book into sections of broad topics: human interest stories about particular languages, word histories, book reviews, language myths, word usage questions. These sections could contain entire columns or just excerpts, as the entries do now; the reviews and human interest would work well as entire columns, while the word usage questions would do better as snippets of the columns that address the particular words.

All that’s not to say that EEE is a bad book. It’s fast, easy, entertaining reading, and would be a good gift for people who like reading about language but may not have heard of Nathan Bierma yet. It’s just not so much a reference book as a language lover’s bathroom reader.

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7 Responses to “Nathan Bierma: The Complete Series”

  1. The Ridger said

    For instance, the that has to stay if it’s serving as the relative clause’s subject (as in the bag that leaked).

    Ummm. Really? I can say “the bag which leaked”. So, apparently, can lots of people:

    Typically, polyurethane or vinyl materials are used to make the bag, which is commonly open at both ends.

    A button closure secures the top of the bag, which, unlike a zipper, won’t fray yarn or projects.

    This gas inflates the bag, which literally bursts out of the steering wheel or dashboard as it expands.

    “Stone cold value!” shouts the bag, which is voiced by actor/comedian Kevin Pollak.

    One of the coolest features of the bag, which is made with excess materials in their San Francisco production facility, is a liner that’s …

    this deponent then handed Gold the bag, which was opened in the presence of said Kennedy, Gold, and this deponent;

    • Ran said

      The question isn’t of “that” vs. “which”, but of “that” vs. “Ø”. “That” can always be replaced by “which” (though some cases work better than others), but can’t always be omitted, i.e. replaced by “Ø” (“I read the book [that] you recommended”, but not *”I read the book [that] bored you”).

  2. Izzy said

    Who uses ‘anxious’ and ‘eager’ as synonyms? I always got the impression that if you were anxious, it was a nervous tension about something bad happening, whilst if you were eager, you were looking forward to something good, and couldn’t wait for it to happen.

    Is this just a UK thing?

    • The Ridger said

      I don’t myself use them as synonyms, but I know lots of people (including my sister, who remained in Tennessee while I left for the army and then Maryland), who do. Though now I think of it, that’s not quite true. She uses “eager” for things she is going to do, “anxious” for other things. She’s “eager to do something”, but “anxious for something to happen”…

  3. Nathan said

    Thanks for the review and kind words, Neal! Sorry the format didn’t work for you. We originally tried it with dates, but it felt, well, dated. Agreed it’s awkward at points. But glad you enjoyed it overall. And happy to report I am not dead–at least as of THIS writing.

  4. […] and misinformed. (Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune, 2008 [no longer online, but included in his book]) [NGD is] just about as annoying as it could be. In her column, Brockenbrough even takes Elvis […]

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