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Usage & Abusage - Book Review

Home > Melbourne > Book Reviews | Books and Writing | How To | Language | Literary
Published December 31st 2013
It's not "bran new"
Usage & Abusage is a chunky little alphabetised volume of linguistic misuse, malapropism, and outright stupidity. A survey of commonly abused words in the English language and a celebration of terminological exactitudes, it's a thrilling, nearly nauseating explication of all the things I'm probably doing wrong at this very moment. Or should that be 'doing wrongly'?

cover usage & abusage penguin classics eric partridge
Cover of Usage & Abusage


Flicking through the pages, an early sense of self-righteousness ('bran-new' is 'etymologically senseless.' Darn right!) is soon replaced by a nagging sense of despair; (whose expletive-ing idea was it to have 'abjure' as 'renounce on oath' and 'adjure' as to request earnestly, especially under oath'? Ridiculous!) And finally, to deep and profound respect for anyone who manages to grasp this uncomfortable, lawless language as a non-native speaker. My hat is unequivocally off to you.

Author Eric Partridge did little to conceal his own opinions in his word choices and explanations, suggesting collective nouns such as an 'independance' of sons, a 'dependance' of daughters,a 'duty' of husbands and a 'duster' of housewives. If you don't mind! He also shows a tendency towards heavy-handed irony or sarcasm (a 'tardiness' of taxi-drivers; a 'rejection' of editors), which takes away a little from the book's authoritative charm.

A small-town New Zealander by birth, Partridge was academically successful and worked hard, publishing over forty books on the English language. He lectured in the United Kingtom, and published novels under the pseudonym Corrie Denison.

Usage and Abusage was first published in 1942, and has since undergone many revisions. The contemporary Penguin Classic edition has been edited and updated by Janet Whitcut, who includes a section on modern 'vogue words' such as 'feedback', 'overkill', 'organic' and 'grass roots' - most of which are corporate jargon or journalistic clichés.

If words such as tautological and non sequitur give you shivers up your spine, this is the book for you. It's clearly organised with lots of little lists included (for example collective nouns, archaisms and tautologies) but can require a bit of page-flipping to find what you need as many words refer you on to another word, and so on. If you get confused, just head over to page 18, on which begins a full eight pages on the topic of ambiguity.

Usage & Abusage is a must-have for all writers, editors, and users of English generally. The Penguin Classic edition retails for $9.95 and is widely available.
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Why? More entertaining than a dictionary!
Cost: RRP $9.95
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