Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Those of you who have read The Stingray Shuffle, the fifth of Tim Dorsey's novels about the peripatetic Serge A. Storms, will recall "City" and "Country," the delightful and daring ladies who temporarily hooked up with Serge and scarfed up all of Coleman's drugs. Those, of course, weren't their real names.

Which brings us to today's book blog. I'm reading David Crystal's By Hook or By Crook: A Journey in Search of English, from Overlook Press. Crystal is the language maven from the U.K. who brought us the wonderful How Language Works and The Story of English.

So, how do you think the word "nickname" came to be? In a meandering discussion of Shakespeare and place names, particularly inns and pubs with the emblem of "Swan" affixed, we learn that many such establishments are called things like "The Swan with Two Necks," etc. Turns out that some scholars believe that this is a vestige of the word "nicks," which means exactly what you think it means.

For hundreds of years in England and Wales, an annual "Upping" of the swans was held to take a census. The licensed ownership of swans required markings, which often consisted of nicks made in the swans' mandibles.

But nick names have nothing to do with that, Crystal tells us.

"...[there was] an Old English expression, an eke name. Eke meant 'also'. It was your 'other' name. Over time, the n of an got transferred to the beginning of eke. An eke became a neke. The pronunciation changed, and the spelling, and eventually we get the modern word."

By Hook or by Crook is coming in hardcover this May from Overlook Press.

Coincidentally, Ann and I got to spend time with the head of Overlook Press a couple of weeks ago. Peter Mayer is the distinguished head of this boutique publishing house that, book for book, seems to come out with some of the most literate books, fiction and non-, of any house we know of.

If you love the English language, etymology, geography, dialects, or just plain good story-telling, mark this one down. It would make a great gift for Mother's Day or Father's Day.

And don't forget to mark your calendars for Tim Dorsey's return to Indiana on Feb. 26, at the store from 5 to 7 p.m.

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