Word Stems - A Dictionary

Title: Word Stems - A Dictionary

Author: John Kennedy.

Publisher: Soho, 1996

ISBN: 1-56947-051-0

This intriguing little book is a concise, no-frills, business-like catalogue of word stems. I think. The problem is that it may be stuffed with wonderful information, but it is far from a wonderful book. 

The first page - the very first page, mark you; no Preface or Introduction or anything like that - is called Explanations, which would be very nice if it actually explained anything. It doesn't. Next there is a kind of Introduction, titled Development, that gives a neat summary of the way in which the English language has evolved. Then the trouble really starts. 

It presents - without a list of contents, but you'll find them eventually - an Alphabetical Word List, an Alphabetical Stem List, and a list of Prefixes. (The Explanations page maintains that there are also suffixes, but I couldn't find them.) Unfortunately it doesn't tell you what any of these mean and, with the exception of the Prefixes, it's not that obvious. Possibly the Word List is supposed to function simply as an index to the Stem List? Would you ever want to know which bit of a word serves as the "stem" without ever knowing what the stem means? 

All this is very sad, because this is a fascinating subject and there are some delightful glimpses into the evolution of our language. For example, under the stem "Macul" (spot, speck, hole, network) you find maculate (to defile or spot), immaculate (unspotted), mackerel (the spotted fish) and, would you believe, mail (steel network for armour - or armor as this American book would have it). They all derive from the Latin macula. Now look at that word carefully. Note the italics. Note that the "a" is not italicised. Erů why? Well, this book isn't going to tell me, anyway. And I'm prepared to bet that "macula" (with or without a non-italicised "a") means spot, speck, etc., as at the top of the entry, but it doesn't say so. 

Word Stems was first published in 1890. I presume this is a straight, unedited reprint. Now that is rather a pity, because with a bit of imaginative editing and a little clarification this would be a fun, fascinating and enlightening book. As it is. . . well, it does its job. If you need to know something, it's probably there. Interesting, in other words, but not amusing.


Rosemary Greenlaw.

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