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BOOK REVIEW: The Painted Word by Phil Cousineau

The Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their OriginsThe Painted Word: A Treasure Chest of Remarkable Words and Their Origins by Phil Cousineau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Painted Word is a collection of interesting words with definitions, insight into each word’s origins and evolution, and interesting or humorous usages. These aren’t all GRE words (massive and mostly useless words that have little value beyond impressing admissions committees.) Many of the words will be familiar to readers without huge vocabularies. On the other hand, there will be words that are new to even New York Times crossword puzzle solvers.

As the title suggests, there’s a little bit of an art-related theme. However, I’m not sure I would have noticed this if it hadn’t been for the title. There are a number of colors included among the words—colors known mostly to interior decorators and not to most heterosexual men. There are also a few artistic styles (e.g. intimism.) However, the bulk of the words aren’t clearly related to the fine arts. Many of the entries are loan words, i.e. words that have been used in English literature or other English-language media but which are of foreign origin.

I’ll include a few of the words that captured my own interest:

Autologophagist: one who eats his / her own words
Bafflegab: language that misleads—intentionally or not
Cataphile: a lover of catacomb crawling
Inkhorn: an over-intellectualized word
Lambent: shining with soft light on the surface of something
Millihelen: the amount of beauty that would result in the launch of a single ship.
Monogashi [Japanese]: the sigh or sadness of things
Sonicky: A great sounding word—coined by Roy Blount Jr.
Oculogyric: eye-rolling
Phlug: belly-button lint
Snollygoster: a shrewd but corrupt politician
Ubantu [Bantu / Xhosa]: the interconnectedness of all things

This book is full of fun insights and statements. I learned that “hush puppies” were literally carried to throw to noisy dogs to get them to stop barking. There are many interesting and humorous quotes. For example, Brendan Behan said, “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done every day, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” Brief vignettes are used to help give depth of understanding to words. One such story is about a Luddite looking upon the operation of a steam shovel who said to his friend, “Were it not for that steam shovel, there would be work for hundreds of men with shovels…” to which his friend replied, “or thousands of men with teaspoons.”

I enjoyed this book. You don’t have to be fascinated by the minutiae of semantics to find it readable and interesting. It’s not as much like reading a dictionary as one might suspect.

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