Never Enough Words: How Americans Invented Expressions as Ingenious, Ornery, and Colorful as Themselves
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 stories.
In a food-themed section of the "Conformity" chapter, McQuain explains that "hold your potato," a nineteenth-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" (three vols., first two published in 1994 and 1997). McQuain avoids those "usu. considered vulgar" expressions in which Lighter delights. Tellingly, McQuain's brief section on curses bears the title "Oh, *!!?!@!" and investigates oaths no stronger than "Jiminy Crickets," "Dad-Gum It," and "Golly."
Despite the omission of words which the Post and Courier wouldn't print, "Never Enough Words" finds language colorful enough to keep the book interesting. In old New England, "to shoot your grandmother" meant "to be mistaken or saddened." But if you're feeling happy, why not attend a waffle frolic? Like the still-understood term "ice cream social," the waffle frolic was a social gathering intended to raise money (but served waffles instead of ice cream). The book makes a great snack for the lover of American idiom, though the scholar may crave multi-volume feasts by J. E. Lighter or H. L. Mencken.
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.
Phil Nel is an adjunct professor of English at the College of Charleston.