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by I. M. Owen

ANYONE who writes a weekly column, not as a full-time job but as a spare-time activity, has my awed respect. I wrote nine columns a year in this magazine for two years and five months before falling into a stricken silence. Therefore I feel humble before Robertson Cochrane, whose "Word Play" has appeared in the Globe and Mail every Saturday for almost two years. It`s well titled - a light and lighthearted exercise, easy to read through halfopen eyes at breakfast and easily understood by half-awake wits. Now the columns of the first year are gathered under the title The Way we Word. Cochrane is mainly interested in curious and amusing facts about the history of individual words. He doesn`t usually deal with serious questions of usage, though he has written a few columns on this subject, here grouped under the heading "Fouler Modem English Usage." (All the headings are provided by a Globe and Mail headline writer, one of the punning specialists now so evident in that paper. This is one of the better efforts - unlike the failed ones that appear frequently, such as, last fall, "Blue jays have World at their feat.") A few of Cochrane`s columns have more solid content, such as two excellent and informative ones on William Cobbett, and an article - not one of the columns, but included in the book - on Alfred the Great as the founder of English as a literary language, a sound tribute to which I object only, in my pedantic way, that he should have noticed that Alfred was not, as he says, king of England. Nobody was in his time. There are, then, good things to be found here, but to my mind merely collecting these fugitive pieces and putting them between covers doesn`t quite make a book. It is a far, far better thing that Bob Blackburn does. Words Fail Us is not, as I had expected, a collection of the columns he wrote for this magazine for nearly 10 years. instead, he has written a real book, logically divided into chapters, each with its own subject. And a very good book it is. He`s mainly taking aim at journalists, and if every journalist were required to read a chapter of Words Fail Us every morning before starting to write, our newspapers, magazines, and news broadcasts would be immeasurably improved. Naturally, users of such a flexible language as English won`t agree with everything Blackburn says. I myself think he errs, when he errs, on the side of rigidity. For instance: Peter Mansbridge told us that the prime minister was now "gavelling the meeting to order"....There is, of course, no such verb as gavel. It`s a noun and that`s that. With great respect, I think that`s nonsense. In the 14th century, some proto-Blackbum might have said the same of hammer. But in the 15th century somebody started using it as a verb, and we`ve been hammering every since. One of the glories - and hazards - of English is its flexibility, and this partly derives from its being largely uninflected, so that verbs aren`t distinguished from nouns by their endings. Hence, the language is full of verbs that started out as nouns. Looking round my room, I see a table, a chair, a light, a pen, a pencil, a carpet, a cushion, a picture. I bet Blackburn has never thought of objecting to the use of any of these words as verbs. Mind you, all those verbs are useful for particular meanings. Others derived from nouns aren`t. In the last five years I`ve read a lot of business journalism. (I`m paid to.) In that world, the verb to source is very big just now. It means to buy. And now we have outsource, meaning to buy from somebody else something you might otherwise produce yourself. I hope both these authors were listening to the CBC on the Ides of March. On the fateful day, both radio ("The World at Six") and television ("Prime Time News") raised the possibility that Kim Campbell might be coronated.

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