Books : reviews

Arnold M. Zwicky, Peter H. Salus, Robert I. Binnick, Anthony L. Vanek.
Studies Out in Left Field: defamatory essays presented to James D. McCawley on the occasion of his 33rd or 34th birthday.
John Benjamins. 1992

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 29 March 2008

Every now and again, a reference to this book pops up in weird, eclectic conversations. I was wondering if it was maybe one of those famously imaginary books, like the Necronomicon, but then I chanced across this reprint of the 1971 original "legendary lost classic of porno- and scatolinguistic theory", and snapped it up.

And weird it is. It is an entire volume of spoof linguistic papers, of varying degrees of hilarity. Many of the essays are "serious" accounts of the unconventional grammatical behaviour of certain Anglo-Saxon verbs to do with various bodily functions, and their foreign equivalents, starting with the much-quoted "English sentences without overt grammatical subject", by Quang Phuc Dong of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology, and going rapidly downhill from there. Even those essays that are not directly about the grammar of these verbs use them copiously in the bizarre example sentence fragments. There are also some other fragments, under the heading of "whimsy", that are linguistic jokes of a rather less porno- and scatological nature. I am not a linguist, so some of the more technical jokes will have gone right over my head. But even so, what I do get is laugh-out-loud hilarious, on many different levels. It is also educational: I am sure that I have actually learned some linguistics from reading this, although of a somewhat restricted kind. The combination of totally serious discussion of these verbs, with the often sniping references to other articles in the same volume, the "explanatory" footnotes, and intermingling of fake and real references, provide an overall surreal effect.

I enjoyed this hugely, but it has to be taken in small doses, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted!