The big literary event for me this year was a dictionary upgrade — from a 1974 first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language to the new, improved fifth edition. The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 colorfully illustrated pages between sturdy cream-colored covers. Among its many delights are the breezy, informative essays about how select words evolved. Here’s a sample Word History:
The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the old Norse word utlagr, “outlawed, banished,” made up of ut, “out,” and log, “law.” An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.
I should also mention a wonderful discovery, Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, a new non-fiction book by fellow Detroit-native Mark Binelli. It’s an overdue and hugely welcome corrective to the narrative of doom and decay that has been pouring out of Detroit, like toxic sludge, for the past 40 years. Binelli, a dogged reporter and deft writer, moved back home for two years to do research, and he came away believing that “Detroit’s luck, despite such unimaginable obstacles, might still turn.” It’s a brave, smart, and important book.
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