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Reviews85 The Last Word: The English Language, Opinions and Prejudices. 2008. Laurence Urdang. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc. Pp xxi + 281. T! 1he Last Word, is, sadly, just that — the last book from Laurence Urdang, who passed away in August 2008. The book is a collection of, as the subtitle promises, Urdang's "opinions and prejudices" about (among other linguistic things) language, dictionaries, writing style, and the uses of computers. In his foreword, Urdang presents The Last Word as his attempt to "document a life devoted to all aspects of language" and the book delivers as promised. Urdang's distinctive voice and his trenchant sense of humor (delivered mostly through offhand parenthetical asides, as when he suggests that Imodium, an anti-diarrhea drug, must have been tested in "double bind experiments "), as well as his curmudgeonly impatience with all known forms of human stupidity (he refers to a Californian group who worked to ban Wentworth and Flexner's Dicitonary of American Slang from libraries as "cretinous, nanocerebral, gormless ninnyhammers") comes through clearly on every page. The most fascinating chapter is the one headed Computers, which describes Urdang's involvement with the digitization (although it was not called that at the time) of the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Beginning in 1 959, well before the advent of the personal computer, Urdang was harrying hapless IBM mainframe operators, deploying six editors to assign serial numbers to entries to facilitate their transfer to Hollerith punchcards, and altering (what would be called "modding" today) a Remington Rand Synchrotape machine to handle the 166 discrete characters needed for the typesetting of the dictionary . Urdang also briefly describes his attempts to build an early high-speed phototypesetter that would run from magnetic tape (complete with automatic hyphenization andjustification), which was foiled only by a stock market crash. Urdang was also an early adopter of the Osbourne personal computers, after having failed to convince engineers at IBM and Minneapolis Honeywell, among others, to build him a device that would "reproduce characters on the screen of a monitor and, at the same time, record the codes for the characters on a magnetic tape in a desk drawer below" — essentially, the first dedicated word processor. The chapter headed Controversy and Dictionaries is one that I would like to make required reading for all journalists, covering as it does such longmisunderstood (by the layperson) topics as the counting of entries in a dictionary , prescriptivism vs. descriptivism in lexicography, inclusion of proper names, and variant pronunciations. Urdang even gives a nod to Google as a way of making rough frequency counts. Dictionaries:Journal ofthe Dictionary Society ofNorth America 29 (2008), 85-86. 86Reviews Where Urdang's voice is heard loudest, and where the subtitle is most apt, is in the chapters given over to discussions of Good English/Bad English, Taboo, Slang, Informal, and Colloquial Language, and Bad Writing, Taste, and Discrimination. Urdang advocates a kind of utilitarian prescriptivism: you speak standard English not because it is the best when measured against some objective standard of communicative efficiency, but because it is the best way to get you what you want — you learn the difference between who and whom because you care for the good opinion of those who care about the difference between who and whom. He does admit that "one problem in promoting good style in language is that some cannot tell the differences between good English and an affected style that succeeds more in communicating a put-down than a thought: language can be (and often is) used to denigrate and belittle another person, sometimes unintentionally." The Last Word is a salmagundi of extended digressions, liberally larded with sourced examples (many of which will be familiar to readers of VERBATIM as being very like what are published there as SIC! SIC! SIC!s) and unsourced anecdotes (for instance, a Professor Fuchs who had his name predictably misspelled). In the "prejudices" column, you will learn that Urdang hates the use of the hand-held camera, the pinyin system of transcription for Chinese, and the use of "no problem" to mean "you're welcome." The only disappointment is that there was no chapter about his work on nautical and seafaring terms. I...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 85-86
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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