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William Sherk.

Toronto, Doubleday, c1983.
256pp, paper, $9.95.
ISBN 0-385-17902-2.

Grades 7 and up.
Reviewed by Ralph Wintrob.

Volume 11 Number 6.
1983 November.

When I was a young and energetic language teacher, I believed that spelling was meaningless without a word study component. The weekly test was never complete without some etymology questions. It drove the kids bananas. The message came back loud and clear: Spelling is enough. Why should we care about the history or origin of words?

It was my contention, however, that traditional spelling texts missed a golden opportunity by virtually ignoring the fascinating history of words and the stimuli of acrostics, word games, and crosswords.

Thank heavens for Trivial Pursuit, which includes a word quiz component and has thereby legitimized the study. Thank heaven too for William Sherk, who, coming out of the same mould of high school language teaching, has again transferred his fascination with words into book form, encouraging other teachers to follow his example and grabbing the kids too.

Sherk's is a very personal approach. The introduction of a new word is a take-off for whimsical reflection, anecdote, or comment. Words we would imagine to be contemporary often prove to have had a long life before we adopted them in our time. "Whiplash" goes back to 1573, "hockey" to 1527, "barbecue" to 1661, "skyscraper" to 1794, "cocktail" to 1809, and "cafeteria" to 1839.

To be sure, the contemporary meaning may bear little relation to the original. "Waterbed" (1791), we discover, started out as earth through which water could filter.

The source for most of the words introduced is the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. But, in his light, if occasionally arch style, Sherk introduces the word "oops," which does not appear in the OUD. If the editors were ever queried about it, he says they would doubtless reply, "Oops, we forgot. .." (See "Ahem").

The word "pornography" (1850) leads Sherk to divert us with tales of the harlots of ancient Athens (Greek being the origin of the word) and to offer its first definition as "Licentious paintings decorating rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies." Shades of Samuel Johnson!

There is enough humour, anecdote, whimsy, and trivia here to make word study more a pleasure than a pain. A paean of praise for that! Each century has a brief introductory note suggesting background to word origins for that period. There is an extensive bibliography and a very personal contrivance, an appendix of words sure to evolve in the near future, all amusingly constructed from familiar originals.

Among the newest words legitimate to the language he offers, "gasahol" (1974), "zit" (1975), 'Vorkaholic" (1971), and "palimony" (1979). Enjoy!

Ralph Wintrob, Zion Heights J. H. S., Willowdale, ON.
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