Wordly Wise : by James McDonald (Watts: $16.95; 293 pp., illustrated)
This book of word origins is a lot of fun, and some of its revelations are stunning. To find that glamour and grammar stem from the same Greek word is a surprise, and it is fascinating to discover common origins for fiasco and flask, for cretin and Christian, for influence and influenza, for cane, cannon, canyon and canon.
And it is curious that in some parts of English-speaking Africa the “polite” words for some bodily functions are objectionable and the “vulgar” ones fully acceptable. And I discovered with amazement yet a third supposed derivation of umpire.
But there are some oversights: McDonald’s proposed derivation of hoodlum is colorful but not the generally accepted one, and the quotation from John Masefield used as a title for one of his chapters is inaccurate.
And I take exception to his allegation that “the press has taken to styling itself the fourth estate.” For the term is an old one, and its application to the press is said to have begun with the British statesman Edmund Burke, who pointed toward the press gallery in Parliament and referred to it as a “Fourth Estate more important far” than the other three.