The Miracle of Language

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE MIRACLE OF LANGUAGE Richard Lederer, an English teacher, punster, and linguist, offers an entertaining examination of the way English speakers communicate, change their language, and think about words. Lederer injects life into the most technical linguistic topics as he considers how humans know what they know, how the English language has developed over several centuries, and how new words are introduced into the language.

The English language is celebrated here with all its flaws and limitations, including gender and color prejudice. Phrases like “black market” and “lily white” reflect social attitudes toward race, while “sinister” and “gauche” suggest a bias against left-handed people. Lederer also plays with redundant expressions like “100 percent pure” and “new and improved” and observes word gaps where the language lacks ways to describe changing concepts and technologies, such as an appropriate way to describe “dialing” a touch-tone phone or to refer to the decade following the 1990’s.

Lederer also illustrates how English has been transformed by writers like William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, and George Orwell. The book is filled with wonderful word lists and memorable definitions by these and other authors. Quotations about the joys of libraries, poetry, and words themselves are accompanied by a straightforward how-to guide for budding poets as well as an impassioned plea to save the dying art of personal letter writing.

Lederer takes the dust off the English language and offers an exciting and joyful appreciation of words.