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Strange To Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment

Strange To Say: Etymology as Serious Entertainment

Deborah Warren

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194-page paperback / 5.5" x 8.5" / ISBN 9781589881570 / Publication Date: 8/17/2021

“You can’t stop language, because when all’s said and done is never.”

In her witty account of the origins of many English words and expressions, Deborah Warren educates as she entertains―and entertain she does, leading her readers through the amazing labyrinthian history of related words. “Language,” she writes, “is all about mutation.”

Read here about the first meanings of common words and phrases, including dessert, vodka, lunatic, tulip, dollar, bikini, peeping tom, peter out, and devil’s advocate. A former Latin teacher, Warren is a gifted poet and a writer of great playfulness. Strange to Say is a cornucopia of joyful learning and laughter.

"[Warren's] curiosity and embrace of the unpredictable, as well as her delight in both the archaic and the homespun, animate Strange to Say, a tour of English that savors the language's mutability."―Wall Street Journal 

"Warren, a poet and teacher of English and Latin, draws on her vast knowledge of the English language to transport readers into the inner-workings of the mind of a philologist: someone who studies the origins of words and how they are used in written works. This fast-paced nonfiction book will be enjoyed by those who find humor and excitement in exploring languages . . . a great read for those who appreciate seeing the whimsy in words, as Warren remarkably achieves etymological entertainment."―Booklist

"[Warren] brings a poet’s ear and eye to Strange to Say, finding joy in the words as much as in their pedigrees. There is an artistry present in Strange to Say that I have rarely encountered in word books . . . It is a strong piece of work on etymologies—a brilliant, holistic approach by a most gifted amateur."―Los Angeles Review of Books

"The author, a poet, is a sure and, indeed, entertaining guide to the evolution of words and meaning."―Harvard Magazine

Did you know…

  • Lord Cardigan was a British aristocrat and military man known for the sweater jackets he sported.
  • A lying lawyer might pull the wool over a judge’s eyes—yank his wig down across his face.
  • In the original tale of Cinderella, her slippers were made of vair (“fur”)—which in the orally-told story mistakenly turned into the homonym verre (“glass”).
  • Like laundry, lavender evolved from Italian lavanderia, “things to be washed.” The plant was used as a clothes freshener. It smells better than, say, the misspelled Downy Unstopable with the ad that touts its “feisty freshness,” unaware that feisty evolved from Middle English fisten—fart.


“Warren goes anywhere, inhabits anything: it is fun to see a poet so willing to embrace metamorphosis . . . A great book.”―The Millions on Connoisseurs of Worms

“Immensely engaging . . . Steeped in references to Greek and Roman history and literature, this book sings with an erudite yet accessible energy one might expect from a former Latin teacher. After finishing this collection, readers will definitely want to dive into the rest of Warren’s oeuvre.”―Booklist on Connoisseurs of Worms

"Not since Richard Wilbur has a poet combined formal grace, visual imagination, and worldly wisdom as appealingly as Deborah Warren. Whether she is writing about the largest subjects―history, love, the soul―or the smallest―housecats, Latin lessons, Cleopatra's nose―Warren, like the craftsman she writes about in 'The Glassblower," shows that she is a master of the 'possibility and prism' of her art."―Adam Kirsch on Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit

"Warren is among the very finest American poets who still observe the strictures of meter and rhyme. She informs her work with lively feeling, wit, wisdom, and memorable music; she keeps us sitting up and interested."―X. J. Kennedy. on Zero Meridian

“Ms. Warren’s poems combine imagination with intelligence, music with emotional energy. The language sparkles in poem after poem.”―Dana Gioia on Zero Meridian

Also available as an ebook:

Deborah Warren is the author of four books of poetry―Connoisseurs of Worms, The Size of Happiness, Zero Meridian, winner of the New Criterion Poetry Prize, and Dream with Flowers and Bowl of Fruit, winner of the Richard Wilbur Award―and a translation of Ausonius: The Moselle and Other Poems. Warren's writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, and other publications, and she has won the Robert Penn Warren Prize, Howard Nemerov Award, Robert Frost Award, and Meringoff Award for her work. She lives in Massachusetts.

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