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A world of words

Tom McArthur has spent six years editing an authoritative new reference book that surveys English from aboriginal English to Zimbabwean English, from A to Zummerzet.

In nearly 1,200 pages, The Oxford Companion to the English Language spans 20 centuries and 104 countries in which English has become a significant language.

"Trying to produce an A to Z survey over all the centuries, as used by all manner of folk, in all kinds of places, for all sorts of purposes, made going to sea in a sieve look quite safe," McArthur remarked, recalling Edward Lear's Jumblies.

Zummerzet, his final entry, is the comic name for Somerset in western England.

The drawling rustic manner of speech there, replacing "s" with "z" and "f" with "v," is supposed to produce phrases like: "Arrr, that'll be roit, zurr," and "We ain't zeen 'im zince last Vroiday."

The dialect also employs special forms of "be," as in "We be happy yere, bain't we?" McArthur writes.

"The book is the first of its kind and the first such for any language. I hope countries like France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Japan will do the same for their languages," McArthur said in an interview.

Oxford University Press simultaneously published the book Sept. 17 in Britain and the United States. It costs $45 in the United States.

McArthur said he wrote 30 percent of the book. "My wife, Feri, who wrote none of it, shares the title page with me because she built up and sustained our worldwide network of 95 contributors and 74 consultants," he said.

Besides the obvious noun, pronoun, verb, preposition and participle, there are entries on amphiboly (ambiguity caused by lack of grammatical clarity), lexical bar (social boundaries arising from speech) and yogh (the name of a letter in English before the 12th century).

The 54-year-old McArthur, who studied at both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities and taught English in Britain, Canada and India, said there's no consensus on what standard English is.

He said standard English "resists easy definition but is used as if most educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to."

Some consider there's no such thing while others see it as a fiction built on social elitism and educational privilege, McArthur said.

His conclusion: Standard English is the variety most widely accepted and understood within an English-speaking country or throughout the English-speaking world, more or less free of regional, class and other peculiarities of speech, and most easily identified in print, which is generally uniform throughout the world.

More than 4,000 articles by the contributors, 26 of them at universities in the United States, discuss grammar, style, usage, pronunciation, the history of English, accents and dialects, names, jargon, writers who shaped the language and the English of air traffic controllers.

Their speech, also known as airspeak and aviation English, is "as concise and unambiguous as possible, and has checkbacks so that speakers can be sure that what was said is what was heard," the book says.

The entry on William Shakespeare by Whitney F. Bolton, an English professor at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J., salutes the immortal bard as the "foremost figure in English literature," without once descending to such awful cliches as "immortal bard."

In his article on cliche, McArthur says that critics of the media "often castigate as cliches "tired expressions' produced under pressure by journalists and others writing against a deadline."

As solace, he notes a modern guide to style as saying, "Not all fixed phrases are necessarily bad."

The Companion is full of fun as well as knowledge. Look up "spoonerism," for example.

The Rev. W.A. Spooner was dean and warden of New College at Oxford University. He lived from 1844 to 1930 and became eponymous for proneness to transposing the initial sounds of words.

Examples include "mit wunday" for Whit Monday and "ket of seas" for set of keys, not to mention a "well-boiled icicle" and a "scoop of Boy Trouts."

Some of the best are supposed to have been invented by Spooner's students but let's hope he was the author of this one: "You have hissed all my mystery lectures and tasted a whole worm." (You have missed all my history lectures and wasted a whole term.)

The Companion also prints ethnic names, even the offensive ones.

"I'm not afraid of writing about such matters as ethnic slurs and taboo words need to be aired, and perhaps defused," McArthur said. "Otherwise, we are sanitizing the language, and the aim of the Companion is to be comprehensive about the language, so they have to go in."

The book is the same in Britain and the United States: It's in British English. But American spelling differences, as in humour-humor, are always noted.

Of New York English, the Companion says it has "low prestige even among its own speakers."

"Their reaction, which has been dubbed "linguistic self-hatred,' is not typical of many other areas, where the local speechways are usually regarded as indicating that the speaker is honest, friendly, sympathetic, intelligent and reliable. New Yorkers' discomfort with their speech patterns may reflect the low regard the rest of the nation has for those patterns," the book says.

"I think my favorite entry is the chronology of English which as far as I know has not been done in such detail before," McArthur said.

The chronology starts with Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain in 55 B.C. and closes with the publication in 1989 of the second edition of the monumental Oxford English Dictionary, begun in 1884 by Sir James Murray.

He said his favorite people in the Companion are Murray, whose method of organizing the dictionary he followed, and Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century lexicographer, critic and poet celebrated for his masterly command of English and his dictionary of 1755.

McArthur concludes his preface to the Companion by quoting Johnson on his dictionary: "It may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed."

"I know just how he felt," McArthur said.