Words, words, words

A Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, author Lynda Mugglestone, has invested this occasionally arcane account with a great deal of magic and a modicum of quiet hilarity.

words book 88 (photo credit: )
words book 88
(photo credit: )
Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the OED By Lynda Mugglestone Yale University Press 304pp., $30 The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People By Joseph Eidelberg Gefen 125pp., $18.95 Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar By Lewis Glinert Routledge 300pp., $29.95 A Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, Lynda Mugglestone, author of Lost For Words - The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary, has invested this occasionally arcane account with a great deal of magic and a modicum of quiet hilarity. Her book began with the chance discovery of annotated proof sheets for the original 1893 edition of the dictionary, replete with deletions and remarks like "Rubbish! Mere tradesman's make-up." The book is not so much about the words that got into the dictionary, but about the thousands that did not. Some of these words, like the awful "healthful," (whatever happened to healthy?) still appear in this newspaper. The OED is the work of many hands, but its hero is James Murray, who signed the original contract with Oxford University Press in 1879. By 1899 the work was only midway through the "C" section, and the complete edition only appeared in the mid-1920s. Mugglestone is one of the great authorities on the English language, but she occasionally employs a word that would have horrified Murray, like the dreadful "prioritize." ARE YOU ready for the next title? It's The Biblical Hebrew Origin of the Japanese People, by the late Joseph Eidelberg (1916-85), an IDF officer and engineer who became general manager of the Dead Sea Works. Eidelberg studied Japanese and spent some time in Japan as a monk, and in this posthumous, slim volume produces a mass of remarkable literary coincidences indicating that many Japanese words and songs have their source in Hebrew and Judaic customs. Eidelberg refers us to the accepted Hebrew origin of some Afghani Muslim tribes (the Pathans still practice halitza) and points out that intermarriage in the Kaifeng Jewish community of China, established by Jewish traders, eventually resulted in Jews who looked Chinese; the same, he claimed, could have happened to Jews who must have reached Korea or Japan when that nation's cultural history was being shaped. I cannot prove that his theory is just the result of the extraordinary power of coincidence. I can only point out that there are many additional Japanese words that sound exactly like Hebrew ones but have a totally different meaning (e.g. ima, "mother" in Hebrew, means "now" in Japanese). Another notable coincidence of which Eidelberg was unaware: Lake Biwa (harp) in central Honshu is the same general shape as Lake Kinneret (harp). ISRAELI HEBREW is a wonderfully vibrant language that has developed much constantly-evolving slang and a myriad of words based on acronyms. Modern Hebrew - An Essential Grammar by Dartmouth professor Lewis Glinert is now in its third edition, but does not keep up with what I call "Israeli." It's a good, clear, wonderfully set-out book dealing with the rules of Hebrew grammar in translations that are written in contemporary American English. However, it sometimes deploys ostensibly correct Hebrew formulations that no Israeli would use. Acronyms were originally spawned in the IDF, but are now deeply rooted in colloquial Israeli usage. For instance, everyone here refers to the value added tax as Ma'am and never as Mas Erech Musaf. But for patient beginners, this is a good buy.