Book reviews

"That's the way it crumbles" (Matthew Engel, 2017)

I had this one on my list for a long time, and then I saw it was on a sale, got it and I read it in a couple of days! (or maybe I devoured it). It surely helped that I was on a holiday which involved the tedium of going to airports and flying, which inevitably also involves lots of waiting time in between the airport and the actual flying.

As someone who learnt English as a third language, it is often hard to distinguish between American and British English the way native speakers can say "oh, that's so American". I can do that in Spanish---you develop a sense of what's "Spanish Spanish" and what is "American Spanish". But for the first years of living in the UK, it was hard for me to tell American from British English. It doesn't help to live in London, as everything is mixed up here, but apparently I am not alone on this, as the book mentions: other speakers of English as a second (or plus) language make no distinction between American and British words. It's all messed up in our brains by now.

The book looks at the birth and growth of American English in parallel with the history of the United States, starting as a dangerous land of immigrants, and ending as a super power (and inevitably has the world speaking its own language). It is not an academic, formal treaty on lexicography, but it is researched enough that is rigourous, yet lighthearted. I did not erupt in laughter as some internet reviewers say, but it did amuse me often (specially the part where the puritans would cover the piano legs with little skirts for decency).

A book that only presented a list of American words would be interesting, but would not help in getting a sense for what is American and how the language works. Thankfully this book has the lists, and it also explains why the words came to be, and the patterns, which I had seen in action before, but I could not quite attribute to American English with certainty. Some examples:

  • creating verbs from nouns by adding "-ize" to them. We see this in the tech world all the time ('texturize', 'vulcanize'), and I never understood why British people were so amused at those made up names. They were amused because you would use other constructions such as 'develop a texture'. But the Americans shorten it!
  • creating verbs from nouns. The book provides "to medal" as an example. "Team GB medalled a lot". I have also seen this often; but it is normally used for comedic purposes.
  • and the opposite, creating nouns from verbs. Such as the really evil 'ask' ("My ask is that you do this"), when you could use an actual noun such as "request" ("My request is that you do this" or the verb "I ask you to do this"). Grrr! I don't like this one, I guess you can tell.
  • creating nouns by appending -age to them, e.g. outage for a power cut (out of power?).
  • creating lots of compound words and verbs such as 'chill out', 'heads up', 'call out'... when there are existing words or constructs that can be used instead (I'm pretty sure this is deliberately done to confuse students of English).

The sense I get after reading the book is that American English strives to simplify; it is very dynamic and colourful, and has no qualms about sounding right or not. They "just do it".

Overall, a very entertaining book, and one I'd recommend to someone who speaks English as a second language.

My only complaint about the book is in regards to the footnotes, of which there are many, and while I love them on a physical book, I read this in a Kindle, and the footnote formatting was quite odd.

By which I mean: when you tap on a footnote number on other Kindle-formatted books, they bring up an overlay on the bottom of the page with the actual footnote, which you can read and then close, without losing sight of which page you were in. But this one used a hyperlink on the footnote number. If you tapped it, it would bring you to another page with footnotes. The footnote number would be another hyperlink, which if you tapped would bring you back to approximately the paragraph you were in, and not always accurately; sometimes you ended up a page before or earlier, which is very disorientating. This made it a bit tedious to read the footnotes, and after a couple of chapters I stopped reading them as I went, and left them for the end of the chapter. This is a pity, because they are not read in context anymore, and might lose some of their comedic purpose.