Herds of harlots and the pig's arse

Blooming English
October 8, 2004

Blooming English describes the roots of the English language and its cultivation over the centuries. It concerns not so much English of the flowery kind as observations on the language as something organic and with a life of its own. The idea of English as a flower in bloom is developed through chapter subheadings drawn from literary quotations and references to cosmetic deadheading, hothouse products from science, and pruning and cutting back untidy English.

The book is not quite a style guide, although it covers many items that cause doubt, such as the apostrophe, what constitutes proper spelling and modern plagues (or quite possibly infestations) such as the dreaded acronym: does anyone today realise that Qantas stands for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services?

There is a growing demand for books about English that chart the many hybrid varieties that have emerged around the world. This book casts fascinating light on English's earliest roots, with references to Anglo-Saxon and Chaucer that are sufficiently erudite to be convincing and yet explained clearly enough to be entertaining. There is also fun to be had with collective nouns, some of which are medieval (a skulk of friars or a herd of harlots) while others belong to the modern world (a flush of plumbers and, appropriately enough, an eloquence of linguists).

The Antipodean roots of the book keep coming to the surface, understandably enough given its source, a long-running radio series in Australia. (Even so, it seems unkind to refer to the speech of New Zealanders as "dialect".) Examples from other varieties of world English would have given the book wider appeal, although the discussion of the correct plural form for "platypus" is a pleasure to read. There is no doubting the erudite analysis of emergent features of Australian grammar, such as the use of "pig's arse" as a potential negator, but there is little external interest now in 1999 being the year of the swear word in Australia.

The style does grate in places, almost as if the transition from a racy radio style of presentation has not quite adapted itself to the written page, although there are attractive single-page boxes with complete linguistic anecdotes that encourage browsing.

Editorial policy still seems undecided as to whether this is a textbook or a piece of light reading. George Herbert appears in the interesting list of references, but there is no link back to the text through footnotes, which makes the whole work appear to be rather more anecdotal and less deep-rooted than it really is and rather irritating for the more serious reader. Defoe gets a date (1697) but no title to the work in question. And did a Captain Gorse really write a Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in the 18th century?

These are minor quibbles. Blooming English is an enjoyable browse, with fascinating insights into a wide range of questions concerning the English language. It is erudite yet light-hearted, and well informed while being accessible.

Tim Connell is director of language studies, City University, London.

Blooming English

Author - Kate Burridge
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 242
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
ISBN - 0 521 83948 3 and 54832 2

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