402: The Toils of Language by Noah J. Jacobs

by Gerard

402: Jacobs, Noah Jonathan. The Toils of Language. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990. 140 pp. ISBN 0-941533-47-6.

It’s not that hard to write a book that goes into Dewey section 402 (Language—Miscellany). All you have to do is write about various trivial topics concerning two or more languages. As long as you include some bits on usage, etymological inquiries, and historical philosophy, you’re all set. Now, whether anyone will want to read it, that’s another story altogether.

Noah Jacobs’s Toils of Language is literally an “all of the above” melting pot of linguistic ideas. So much so, that I only have a hint of what he was talking about. There are connections between animal names and the Hebrew Bible, a chapter on the male-ness of the English language, and an essay on whether the existence of women has helped or hindered the evolution of language as a whole. And that’s just the beginning.

There’s also the matter of all the obscure words. Now, I’m by no stretch of the imagination a linguistic know-it-all, but I dabble in the waters of sesquipedalianism. Jacobs takes this to a whole new level. Many times, he takes it upon himself to let you know what the word means, but not always. Here’s just a small selection of the “new” words I learned from this book:

  • Alopecuria: the act of turning a defect into a virtue
  • Retromingent: Urinating backwards
  • Boustrophedonic: Weaving in a solid line left to right to left to right (and so forth); literally “as the ox plows”
  • Brolliology: the study of umbrellas

After looking around the Internet to see what other people had made of this book, I came upon a curious situation: There appear to be no customer reviews of this book anywhere. Not on Amazon, not on Barnes & Noble, not on Abebooks, not on GoodReads—nowhere. This creates a very daunting task for me indeed. To be the first to actively review a book (outside of its editor, of course) might be a little more than I can handle.

So, here’s my review. If you’re into obscurantist adventures throughout the history of language with a smattering of poetry, literary theory, and history thrown in for good measure, then by all means, slog through this book. If not, move on to something else—I wouldn’t hold it against you. It has its moments, but they are few and far between.