Lover of American idioms will find book interesting
Sunday, June 20,
Never Enough Words: How Americans
Invented Expressions as Ingenious, Ornery and Colorful as
by Jeffrey McQuain. Random House. 278 pages. $34.95.
"Never Enough Words" is an abridged
dictionary of slang disguised as a short-story collection.
Though there's an alphabetical index to guide you back to
your favorites, Jeffrey McQuain has organized the book
according to what he considers American character traits,
thematically grouping related words as he tells their
In a food-themed section of the
"Conformity" chapter, McQuain explains that "Hold your
potato," a 19th-century phrase meaning "Be patient," derived
from the earlier expression "Hold your horses." Though this
horse expression remains in use today, many potato phrases
have fallen out of use: in the 1850s, "Tell it to the
potatoes" was an expression of incredulity but, in the
1830s, "That's the tater" meant "That's the truth."
McQuain's truths, however, are
strictly PG. One might call "Never Enough Words" the
edited-for-television version of J.E. Lighter's monumental
"Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang."
McQuain avoids those "usually considered vulgar" expressions
in which Lighter delights.
Despite the omission of words that
a family newspaper wouldn't print, the book finds language
colorful enough to keep the book interesting. The book makes
a great snack for the lover of American idiom though the
scholar may crave multivolume feasts by Lighter or H.L.
Whether airplane reading for the
vacationing philologist or serious fun for the dedicated
autodidact, McQuain's book delivers the pleasures of
education. To quote poet Billy Collins' meditation on
reading the encyclopedia, "No matter what the size of the
aquarium of one's learning, another colored pebble can
always be dropped in."
"Never Enough Words" provides
plenty of pebbles. And even a few potatoes.
Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of