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Highly Irregular Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't Rhyme—And Other Oddities of the English Language

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2021-07-01
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
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Maybe you've been speaking English all your life, or maybe you learned it later on. But whether you use it just well enough to get your daily business done, or you're an expert with a red pen who never omits a comma or misplaces a modifier, you must have noticed that there are some things about this language that are just weird.

Perhaps you're reading a book and stop to puzzle over absurd spelling rules (Why are there so many ways to say '-gh'?), or you hear someone talking and get stuck on an expression (Why do we say "How dare you" but not "How try you"?), or your kid quizzes you on homework (Why is it "eleven and twelve" instead of "oneteen and twoteen"?). Suddenly you ask yourself, "Wait, why do we do it this way?" You think about it, try to explain it, and keep running into walls. It doesn't conform to logic. It doesn't work the way you'd expect it to. There doesn't seem to be any rule at all.

There might not be a logical explanation, but there will be an explanation, and this book is here to help.

In Highly Irregular, Arika Okrent answers these questions and many more. Along the way she tells the story of the many influences--from invading French armies to stubborn Flemish printers--that made our language the way it is today. Both an entertaining send-up of linguistic oddities and a deeply researched history of English, Highly Irregular is essential reading for anyone who has paused to wonder about our marvelous mess of a language.

Author Biography

Arika Okrent is a linguist and author of In the Land of Invented Languages. She worked in a brain research lab on her way to a Psycholinguistics PhD from the University of Chicago, and now writes about language for various publications including Mental Floss, The Week, Smithsonian Magazine, Popular Science, Slate, and Aeon.

Sean O'Neill is an illustrator and writer living in Chicago. He is the creator of the Rocket Robinson series of graphic novels for young readers.

Arika and Sean are also known for their series of live-drawing whiteboard videos on language and other topics, produced by mentalfloss.com.

Table of Contents


Part I: Blame the Barbarians

Thoroughly Tough, Right?: Why are so many words spelled with 'gh'?

Six of One, Half a Twoteeon of the Other: Why is it 'eleven, twelve' instead of 'oneteen, twoteen'?

I Ated All the Cookies: Why do we have irregular verbs?

Woe is We: Why is it 'woe is me,' not 'I am woe'?

Egging them On: What is the egg doing in "egg on"?

Elegantly Clad and Stylishly Shod: Why is it 'clean-shaven' and not 'clean-shaved'?

It Goes by so Fastly: Why do we move slowly but not fastly? And step softly but not hardly?

Getting and Giving the General Gist: Why are there two ways to say the letter g?

Release the Meese: Why isn't the plural of moose meese?

Part II: Blame the French

Of Unrequited Lof : Why isn't of spelled with a 'v'?

Don't inSULT me with that INsult: Why are there noun-verb pairs that only differ by stress?

Ask the Poets Laureate: Why is it sum total and not total sum?

Without Fail : Why is it 'without fail' and not 'failure' or 'failing'?

A Sizeable, Substantial, Extensive Vocabulary: Why are there so many synonyms?

Part III: Blame the Printing Press

Uninvited Ghuests: Why are ghost, ghastly, and ghoul spelled with a gh?

Peek, Peak, Piece, People: Why are there so many ways to write the ee sound?

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Why is there a silent l?

Gnat, Knot, Comb, Wrist: Why do we have silent consonants?

Crew, Grew, Stew, New...Sew?: Why don't sew and new rhyme?

Fairweather Vowels: Why is Y a sometimes vowel?

Part IV: Blame the Snobs

Get Receipts on those Extra Letters: Why is there a p in receipt, and l in salmon, and a b in doubt?

The Data are in on the Octopi: What's the deal with Latin plurals?

Pick a Color/Colour: Can't we get this standardized/standardised

Asthma, Phelgm, and Diarrhea: Why all the extra letters?

Too Much Discretion: Keeping discreet and discrete discrete, discreetly

Part V: Blame Ourselves

The Colonel of Truth: What is the deal with the word colonel?

Couth, Kempt, and Ruthful: Why have some words lost their better halves?

If it Ain't Broke, Don't Scramble It: Why is There no egg in eggplant?

Proving the Rule: How can an exception prove a rule?

Abbreviation Deflation: Why is there an 'R' in Mrs.?

Crazy English: Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Hey Large Spender: Why do we order a large drink (or fries or pizza or t-shirt) and not a big one?

How it Comes to Be: How come we say 'how come'?

Negative Fixation: Why can you say "this won't take long" but not "this will take long"?

Why do Noses Run and Feet Smell?: A corny joke with a serious answer

Terrible and Terrific, Awful and Awesome: How does the same root get opposite meanings?

Literally Messed Up: How did literally get to mean figuratively?

Phrasal Verbs, Let's Go Over Them: But don't try to "go them over." (You can look them over though.)

How Dare You Say How Try You!: Why dare isn't like the other verbs

What the Hell is with What the Hell?

Bibliography .

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