May 18, 2008

By Hook or by Crook

In this volume, we spend a week driving around Wales and the Marches with an eminent and sociable linguist who has plenty of fine and amusing stories with which to amuse the dull spaces between towns. He knows why each city and village is named as it is, and he knows what interesting thing happened there in 642 or in 1739. Once in a while, we stop to do some work — to give a talk at a conference, to attend a festival of used books or Welsh music, to record sample accents for a BBC documentary. We learn why, in the British navy, one should never speak the word “232” aloud. We learn why Charles Darwin’s famous grandfather didn’t get along with Dictionary Johnson. We learn exactly what the differences are between Harry Potter’s British and American editions. We learn that Austrian bees can understand the dance of British bees, but that they dance with slightly different accents that lead to mild misunderstandings. It’s a pleasant, unsystematic interlude, a working week away from work.