by Bill Bryson
... 'Mother Tongue' by Bill Bryson, an American writer and broadcaster who lived in Britain for many years, before recently moving back to the USA. Moving to another country often enables people to see both their new adopted country as well as their home country more clearly.
Bill Bryson writes about language, its historical origins and contemporary usage. His style is refreshingly non-academic, and often very funny; in 'Made in America' he explains a thousand and one American words which non-Americans have grown up with, exposed to US literature and TV culture, and partially understand but whose origins they cannot explain. Like these two:
'Two other terms more loosely associated with railway travel are bum and hobo. Hobo was first attested in a newspaper in Ellensburgh, Washington, in 1891, but no one has ever come up with a certain explanation of its etymology. Among the theories: that it is a contraction of 'homeward bound' or that it has something to do with the salutation 'Ho! Beau!', which sounds a trifle refined for vagrants, but in fact was a common cry among railway workers in the nineteenth century and would certainly have been familiar to those who rode the rails. Bum in the sense of a tramp appears to be a shortening of the German Bummler, a loafer and ne'er-do-well.'
The opening sentence of 'Mother Tongue' is:
'More than 300 million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, try to.' EFL teachers will enjoy 'Mother Tongue'; if nothing else, it is a compact and economical way of impressing colleagues in after-dinner conversations about the quirks of the English language. For example, you can say: 'Did you know that Shakespeare never used the Present Progressive?' This implies that you have read and remembered the entire works of Shakespeare and noticed his use of tenses, too. That's how useful Bill Bryson can be.
Ruth Rendell, the mystery writer, says this is 'the sort of linguistics I like, anecdotal, full of revelations, and with not one dull paragraph'.