Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hobgoblins of Language

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins 

Definition: An overwhelming fear of using a word more than once in a single sentence, or even in a single paragraph."

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins is a unique reference book about superstitions of writing and writers. When are prohibitions based on personal prejudice rather than good usage? Bernstein covers this question and more in his discussion of the superstitions of usage - "prohibitions deriving from mere personal prejudice or from misguided pedantry or from a cold conservatism that would freeze the language if it could."  You know a book will be fun to read when chapter titles refer to witchcraft, scarecrows, imps and spooks.
Beneath the facetious titles the reader finds a glossary of words demonstrating how language changes, chapters on syntax, idioms, and style. He also sneaks a bibliography into his intriguingly titled preface: "A Word to the Whys".
 The appendix is most interesting; introduced as a "museum" it contains examples of how not to correct usage even as it provides a mixed bag of good, bad and outdated advice. Bernstein admits to this and holds the appendix as a rare but altogether mixed bag of usage.  Including William Cullen Bryant, Ambrose Bierce, and James Gordon Bennett it provides sources that increase the book's value.  Overall this is a delightful book to read and refer to as a writer or reader.

Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins by Theodore M. Bernstein. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.


Parrish Lantern said...

This sounds like a wonderful addition to ones collection of Thesauruses,Dictionaries & the like.

James said...

Like a fine wine, it complements your pleasure when studying the aesthetics of word usage.