Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Verbivore's Feast: Book Review

Some people collect coins or stamps or dolls or butterflies or autographs. I collect words and phrases, plucking them from my reading and listening and capturing them in a notebook. Sometimes I collect them merely because I like the way they sound, like fluorescent, cameo, chrysalis, and jubilee.  Sometimes I like what they stand for: grace, sapphire, cocoa. And I love to delve into their origins.

Recently I had the fun experience of being able to explain to friends what "I'll be there with bells on" really means. ("I'll be there with the bells still intact on my horse's harness," i.e., carefree and happy, experiencing no trouble along the way--although I've also seen an alternative explanation involving sailors' bell-bottom pants that doesn't make much sense to me.)

Given my proclivity for words and phrases, Verbivore's Feast by "Chrysti the Wordsmith," aka Montana author and radio personality Chrysti M. Smith, has been a delight. Organized alphabetically, Verbivore's Feast is a serendipitous collection for words and phrases, with a page of explanation for each. Here's one entry, chosen at random:


"The common American expression paint the town red means 'to celebrate wildly, to party with unruly abandon.' Though every American English speaker knows what the expression means, its origin is surprisingly fugitive.

"One theory suggests the paint in this expression was actually red fire that blazed in frontier settlements after an attack by some vengeful faction. This notion provided a later metaphor for celebrants who partied with incendiary glee.

"William and Mary Morris, in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, contend that the red in this phrase refers to the red-light districts in western towns. A herd of rowdy workers, after visiting that shady section for whiskey and company, might decide to treat the whole town like a red-light district, thus 'painting the town red.'

"Or perhaps the red in this expression is symbolic of violence and blood, giving us a phrase that figuratively means to cover the town with bloodshed and brawling.

"A final contender connects this phrase with an older expression to pain, meaning 'to drink'; the paint here is the red on a drunk's nose. Using this notion, to paint the town red is to visit every saloon on the streets.

"This lively expression has a mind of its own, refusing the scrutiny of America's most earnest word watchers." (from Verbivore's Feast by Chrysti M. Smith, copyright 2004, Farcountry Press)

There you have it, readers. Which explanation of paint the town red seems the most likely to you? Have you heard any others?

Verbivore's Feast is filled with these delightful tidbits. Next I'm off to see if I can dig up a copy of the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins for myself Meanwhile I'm adding incendiary to my word-collection notebook.

1 comment:

Jennifer Rova said...

I, too, love words and phrases. I am definitely going to find a copy of the book you mentioned. Like you, I write down phrases and especially similes that "tickle my fancy." Thanks for a great post.