Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language

Arika Okrent (Oxford UP, $20.95, 264 pages)

Linguist Arika Okrent has written a delightful book on the oddities of the English language, Highly Irregular. Okrent looks at hundreds of words and phrases that do not conform to the normal rules of spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and usage, focusing on the “frustrating challenge of figuring out how to match sound and spelling.” Using history – invasions and geopolitics influence language, especially English – she provides the backstories for words and expressions that do not abide our expectations for how they should be spelt (or is it spelled?) and used. Okrent observes that there is an “expectation that language should be a logical, orderly system” but often it is not. Yet, it is not capricious, either. Okrent says in the introduction that English is “weird in specific ways for specific reasons” and in about 40 brief chapters explains why. For many words, the confusion stems from the fact English has roots in the Germanic language which was later influenced by Scandinavian explorers and French administrators. Throw in more than a dash of Latin and imports from other languages – the English were a sea-faring people and England a destination to be explored and conquered – and local dialects, and you have the panoply of irregular English words and expressions.

Readers will get a history lesson along with the reasons for the plethora of what to pronounce “gh” and an English lesson on the hard and soft “g” (our ancestors also pronounced it with “a sort of soft gargle we no longer use in English.”) And if you have wondered why we ate the cookie not eated it or drank the milk instead of drinked it, the fact it was once more common to merely change a vowel for past tenses; some of them stuck, most did not. As for why we use eleven and twelve and then switch to the teens, it comes down to our ancestors needing to count to 11 and 12 with some frequency but seldom beyond. Okrent explains why we order a large drink and not a big one, with the helpful reminder that “meaning is not something contained in a word but a habit of usage that emerges over time by consensus”; that is, language is organic, never static. And the word driveway – in which we now park cars – preceded the automobile, when the word described a lane in which to drive a carriage or team of animals. Etymology is seldom as fun as Okrent makes it and Sean O’Neill’s illustrations only add to the whimsy of the book.