Review: Don’t Be a Damp Squid

Geek Culture


Image: Oxford University Press

It’s rare that I savor a book. Sure, I enjoy them quite a bit, I laugh out loud sometimes and I look forward to the next book in the series. But to deliberately read a book slowly, to savor its contents and get the most out of them… That’s pretty unusual for me. But I recently read such a book.

Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare by Jeremy Butterfield is that book. It’s a fascinating look into the development of the English language. It particularly looks at British English, since it’s written by a Brit and published by the Oxford University Press, but the author does bring in American English plenty of times.

Some people might feel that the study of the history of a language would be a dry topic. It really isn’t, and Butterfield keeps you entertained along the way. Any technical terms that are used are explained, and you will come away knowing more than you thought you could learn from such a short book. Read this book and you will start to look at words differently.

“Damp squib” or “damp squid” means that someone is being a disappointment. In our country, I’ve heard the term “wet blanket” to mean something similar, such as, “Oh, don’t be a wet blanket.” But for American audiences, “damp squid” isn’t a commonly heard phrase. The original phrase, “damp squib,” turned into “damp squid” over time. People who used the phrase eventually replaced a word that was becoming increasingly obscure with a word that was familiar to them. The Telegraph recently published a list of the top ten misquoted phrases by British people. The title to this book was number one.

What Is in the Book?

There is no gradual start to this book. The important bits start right away in the introduction. You learn about dictionaries and corpora, how they are created, the Oxford corpus, how the corpus is organized, how it works and what it can tell us. A corpus is “a collection of written texts,” but if you know how to use it, so much information can be drawn from such a collection. The book explains that, “In a sort of human genome project for language, evidence from a corpus allows dictionary makers and linguists to look both at the whole genetic structure of English, and at the genetic make-up of each and every word. They can build up a picture of English as used and validated by the entire language community who speak it—for in the end it is speakers, not dictionaries, who decide how language is used.” Though the corpus uses texts, which are mostly originally written material, it also contains blog entries, which the book explains are written more like speech than other kinds of writing.

As Damp Squid goes on, the author tackles such questions as, “How many words are there?” “Where do words come from?” “Why does spelling change over time?” It also goes into the ever-popular schwa. It’s not only fun to say, it has an important place in our language and can greatly affect how people spell words.

The book spends some time analyzing the corpus in different ways. It is fascinating to me all the different conclusions one can draw from what amounts to a big text file. You end up thinking about words in ways that never occurred to you before, but make perfect sense, such as how some words are almost always grouped with certain other words. This is one of the many subtleties in the English language that we usually don’t pick up on. Does English just consist of ready-made chunks that we just have to arrange to convey our meaning? This illustrates why talking with children is so fun. They haven’t yet gotten into the habit of grouping certain words with certain other words, so they phrase things in a way that is completely accurate, but very different from what we are used to hearing.

The book also discusses word choice in several grammar situations. These things can be debated forever, but the problem is, however, that often both sides are technically correct. Sometimes it is just a matter of style. And sometimes it is a matter of people using incorrect words for so long that the incorrect usage becomes acceptable. How many times have you heard the word “criteria” used as a singular word? I am bothered by such things, but this book has also shown me similar word changes from long ago that, had they happened today, would bother me, too.

You can’t talk about the history of a language without discussing its origins. Damp Squid teaches a lot about where our words come from, which parts are Old English, which are German, French, Latin or Greek. When talking about some North American languages that have contributed to English, the book even mentions that the word “chilli” comes from Nahuatl.

Damp Squid doesn’t just discuss theory and trends. It is filled with examples for each point it addresses. This helps those of us without experience in linguistics understand the point being made.

Learning Much About British English

The book is very focused on British English; the major resources mentioned—the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford corpus—are from England. Because of this, you get a close look at terms and phrases used in England, so it is as much a study of modern British English as it is the history of the language. Some readers in the states may think that this detracts from the book’s appeal, but I feel that it is nothing more than an opportunity to expand your horizons and vocabulary. A few words and phrases have even sent me straight to a dictionary or online reference, though. There are several spots in the book where I wasn’t sure what the author was talking about, though, because American and British pronunciations can be so different. The book was obviously written with a British audience in mind, since the author writes about some fairly non-obvious (to me) jokes and plenty of unfamiliar references. But all that just makes me curiouser and curiouser. American English has its origins in Britain, obviously, but both have evolved mostly separately for quite some time now.

The chapter of the book that goes into idioms addresses the “damp squid/b” issue. I had never heard that phrase before I read this book. It makes for an awesome book title, but one which would mean more to the British. Some of the other idioms mentioned are much more familiar to me, such as “no spring chicken,” “to touch base” and “to turn a blind eye.” But some others require some explanation, such as “to move the goal posts,” “the dog’s bollocks” and “a kangaroo loose in his top paddock.” You can guess at some of their meanings, but the idioms can seem pretty random. In the same chapter, the book also discusses how much metaphor pervades our language.

This book and my current knowledge of British English help explain my early spelling difficulties with a few words as a child. When I was three, we took a trip to Bermuda. My mom invested in a copious amount of Ladybird books. My sister and I read those books over and over throughout our childhood. It was years before I knew the American/British spelling differences for words like gray/grey, story/storey, pajamas/pyjamas, tire/tyre.

A Delight for Regular People and Linguists Alike

Damp Squid would be a delight for anyone interested in words and the English language. It seems to be written for regular people, though linguists would also find it interesting. I really loved this book. It gives real information for the casual student of the English language, complete with plenty of fascinating word facts and examples. Basic linguistics has always fascinated me, but this book had me wanting a more in-depth study of our language. The book also makes me want to study Latin, to learn more about our word origins. But then I’d also have to study Greek, French, German and plenty of other languages to get the whole picture.

The book is also filled with delightful finds, such as the fact that “the noughties” is apparently the word to use for the years 2000 to 2009. I hadn’t heard that one before. It works well in print, not so well out loud. Perhaps it is used in England, but I thought that what term to use for that decade is still up for debate.

The author has a video on YouTube which is a decent introduction to what the book is about. The book goes much deeper into the language than the video lets on, however. Also, the book isn’t as dry as the video. When you’re watching it, just pretend he’s expressing dry British humor!

Damp Squid is not a quick read. While it isn’t a long book (179 pages including notes and index), it is so full of information that you’ll want to relish it and really learn everything it contains. The book retails for $12.95, but can currently be purchased for less on Amazon.

Wired: You’ll come away from this book knowing so much more about the English language than you did before. It’s densely packed with information, but is written with a friendly tone. It is definitely a book for autodidacts.

Tired: If you’re not an autodidact, you probably won’t enjoy this book. Especially if you like your English in the American variety only.

Note: I was furnished with a review copy of this book.

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