Friday, 3 April 2009

MARCH HARES & MONKEYS' UNCLES - Origins of the Words and Phrases we use Everyday - by Harry Oliver

A good test for any fiction is how convincingly the author uses not slang, nor cussing, but idiomatic words and expressions.

How many times have we read otherwise enjoyable fiction only to have a 'foreign' character pop into a scene with a Dick Van Dyke* like, "Gor blimey guv'nor", or its U.S. equivalent?

This chirruping of cod dialect, usually the result of misplaced effort to add tang to the tongues of lesser characters, is both irritating and condescending. But what to do?

Well-wrought, well-timed and well-placed idiomatic language can enrich the story experience, even immortalize characters. Dickens was a master of idiom, but even he got it wrong at least half as many times as he got it right.

March Hares & Monkeys' Uncles attempts to give the origins to those phrases us crazy limeys use every waking hour of the day; and throws in a chapter titled Across the Pond and attempts the same with a selection of the better known U.S. expressions such as 'whippersnapper' and 'paint the town red'.

It's perhaps unfair to bring too much critical weight to bear on this slim, diverting book, but I think the publisher has missed a trick with this volume. A bit more substantive research, a few citations, a more expansive inventory of words and expressions, a judicious bit of editing and a re-design could produce a valuable reference work for writers.

The book doesn't really tackle idiomatic language, (and doesn't claim to) more gives the most credible or most popular explanation for a range of stock phrases such as, 'a pig in a poke' and 'know your onions'.

Ultimately though it failed a real test. When writing an e-mail to an American acquaintance I'd written, "wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole". Though the context rendered the phrase self-explanatory I thought to look up the expression in case explanation were needed. I couldn't find any reference to barge-poles in the book.

Similarly you will not find: 'scrubber'; 'slapper', and the phrases, 'don't get your knick(er)s in a twist' and 'take the piss out of.' All very common in British English usage though likely to wrinkle many an American brow.

So, in summary, a diverting and sometimes amusing book for an occasional dip but not one to rely on as a reference work.

* Viz. Mary Poppins

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