Reviewed by Sarah James
Raining cats and dogs, the green-eyed monster, as mad as a hatter; although their origins may be obscure to us, these phrases feel familiar and comfortable in everyday language. Many phrases, in fact, are so ingrained into our daily vernacular it becomes hard to imagine where they came from and what they might have meant to their originators.
In a new book from the University of Minnesota Press, the St. Petersburg-born linguist Anatoly Liberman provides a deep-dive into the overlapping and sometimes overwhelming history of American idioms, and he explains their roots in Germanic and other European languages. With a detailed index and rich thesaurus, “Take My Word for It” blends an interesting read for scholars and students of language alike. Liberman provides a concise history and explanation for every term, and he includes hundreds of phrases, making his book a useful companion for readers and writers alike.
Long a regular presence on Minnesota Public Radio, Liberman became a most unusual thing — a beloved linguist. For several years, he was a frequent guest on Kerri Miller’s morning program. Miller would pepper him with questions about words and phrases that are often misused and confused and about bits of language whose origins are unclear. And callers would join the conversation with questions about tricky bits of speech.
After finishing the writing of his new book, Liberman made an appearance on MPR to take questions about the origins of phrases that second- and third-generation Americans might remember from their families. As it turns out, many phrases and sayings (such as “How she go?” for “How are you?”) were not exclusive to one family, as was often thought by the caller, but were common amalgamations from European languages.
Liberman writes in a way that is inclusive and accessible for all, creating not only an interesting collection of trivia that would sit attractively on a bookshelf but also providing a sort of study guide for non-native English speakers as they attempt to navigate the intrinsically difficult nature of the language.
His book also makes for an intriguing conversation starter. Ever wondered where the ever popular “no love lost” phrase originated? According to Liberman, it initially meant the opposite of what it does today. It was used to describe people who are friendly — and nothing more than friends. Liberman draws from a source that says, “it is suggested that there was not so much love between them that there was a surplus which could go to waste.”
The phrase “gas and gaiters” may rank among the more peculiar and obscure expressions in English, and Liberman explains it as “a nonsensical alliterative phrase coined by Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby (1839). It means approximately ‘all is well’. OED 1710.” (His OED citation refers, of course, to the Oxford English Dictionary.)
A professor at the University of Minnesota, Liberman is a Guggenheim and a Fullbright fellow and has published more than 20 books. His latest presents an easy-to-digest yet thorough knowledge of both British and American phrases and their history. Spanning the ever-changing last three centuries, Liberman offers an in-depth understanding of the “ins and outs” of language that is supplemented with an accessible introduction and conclusion, helping make the book a source that is understandable for all.
“Take My Word for It,” which will be released Feb. 28, makes a worthy addition to every library and should be considered a necessity for any budding etymologist.