I received this book as a wildly appropriate gift since
I am a linguiphile and my name also happens to be Jesse. Yes, I have
some damn witty friends. There's a cartoon of a guy reading, sitting
on the cover of the book, that could even pass for me. The book is a
collection of Jesse's answers to readers' questions on his website, www.jessesword.com.
He explains word meanings, uses, and especially etymology.
The etmology is the focus of the book; it is not merely
a list of interesting vocabulary words and their meanings, but centers
on the words' origins. This etmology can be both fascinating and dry.
It is a big plus that each of the entries here was a real question asked
by someone. Who knows which horribly boring words would have been chosen
by Jesse himself or his editors. As it is, many of the words are of great
interest. I particularly liked entries for expressions and slang phrases.
These origins are often impossible to deduce without Jesse's great resources
(he's a senior editor in Random House's Reference Division.)
For example, I had often jokingly asked what the "H" stood
for in "Jesus H. Christ" - turns out it's a mistaken middle
initial from the Greek monogram for Jesus, IHC. Jesse also makes it more
interesting by providing famous examples of each word's use. He notes
Mark Twain thought Jesus H. Christ was an old expression even in his
Some more interesting tidbits:
"Phat" is slang from the sixties.
"Rule of thumb" doesn't have anything to
do with an old law letting husbands beat their wives, which I had heard
before, but merely the habit of measuring distances with a thumblength.
"Duff" means the rump, explaining The Simpson's
ubiquitous "Duff Beer."
"Lay on, MacDuff" is correctly from Macbeth,
not the oft-heard "Lead on, Macduff."
"P.U." does not stand for anything, it merely
represents that sound.
"Callipygous" is my new favorite word.
Jesse's wit explains why his web site is so popular.
He offers many asides that pun on the words, or use current events as
funny examples (I enjoyed his calling George Will a dudgeon.) But the
dry nature of etmology makes this a tough read all at once. It's best
taken in small doses, and shared with friends - and you'll remember the
meanings of the words better that way anyway.