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Everyone ‘has his say’ about Bill Bryson’s ‘The Mother Tongue’

The Men’s Book Club of Grand Rapids, Minn., operates by two inviolable rules: 1) Everyone has his say, and 2) No fisticuffs, “verbal or otherwise.”

The Men’s Book Club of Grand Rapids, Minn., operates by two inviolable rules: 1) Everyone has his say, and 2) No fisticuffs, “verbal or otherwise.”

The club members are well-mannered, well-spoken, and clearly game for the good-natured, brainy jousting that has come to define their gatherings. They are a rare breed: Of the 43 book clubs registered with the independently owned Village Book Store in downtown Grand Rapids (a town of about 8,000 people), theirs is the only men’s club. They meet monthly in a room overlooking the Mississippi River in the Grand Rapids Area Library (below right), a $6.6 million community jewel sandwiched by the Blandin Foundation headquarters and KAXE Radio. (Check out that station’s author interviews with Wally Lamb, Robert Alexander, Janet Evanovich and many others.)

There are about 16 club members, who range in age from 19 to 85. Among them is a retired plant pathologist, a retired newspaper publisher, a community college student, an arts administrator, an electrical engineer, a retired dairy farmer and wheelwright, a reference librarian, and a technologist.

The Men's Book Club meets monthly at the Grand Rapids Area Library.

In late summer, they met to discuss Bill Bryson’s “The Mother Tongue” (William Morrow, 1990), a fun-fact-packed, boisterous embrace of the English language and its history. The book was nominated by club member Bob Rossman, a longtime print industry professional and former publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald-Review. According to club rules, the man who nominates the book guides the discussion.

‘I’ve learned to watch my words’
Rossman opened by telling of how his mother-in-law, in the early decades of his marriage, sent the gift of “The Joy of Lex,” by Gyles Brandreth. That book may well account for his long and happy marriage, he told the men, who chuckled in appreciation. “I’ve learned to watch my words very carefully,” he said. “And I guess with reasonable success, because [my wife and I] recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.”

Then, consulting his typewritten notes (which, from across the table, looked as if they’d been organized in perfectly descending Harvard Outline stair steps), Rossman praised Bryson’s book for its “clear organization, fascinating detail, appropriate examples and good humor throughout.”

There was no shortage of material with which to support his case. Every single paragraph of every single page of “The Mother Tongue” is crammed with anecdote, historical nugget and linguistic factoid. A reader is guaranteed to muse repeatedly “Wow, I had no idea!” during the swift, 245-page read.

“I could go on and on,” the author enthuses at one point. “I think I will.”

Here’s a sampling:

“Many … words owe their existence to mishearings. Buttonhole was once buttonhold. Sweetheart was originally sweetard, as in dullard and dotard. Bridegroom was in Old English bryd-guma, but the context made people think of groom and an r was added. By a similar process l found its way into belfrey. Asparagus was for 200 years called sparrow-grass. Pentice became penthouse. Shamefaced was originally shamefast (fast here having the sense of lodged firmly, as in ‘stuck fast’).”

And so it goes, as Bryson explores the history and origins of English, its pronunciation, spelling, grammar, size, universality, and, most especially, its endless facility, adaptability and changeability.

Best to read it in the morning

For some, the book was perhaps a little too “encyclopedic.” Todd Driscoll, a retired senior program officer for the Blandin Foundation, said it’s best to read it in the morning, when the mind is fresh. “You can’t read this before going to bed at night, because it’s a reference book, and it’s got a lot of content, a lot of meat.”

Club members were awestruck by Shakespeare’s playful, inventive and unmatched contributions to the language. Bryson reminds readers of the many phrases Shakespeare gave us: “one fell swoop, in my mind’s eye, more in sorrow than in anger, to be in a pickle, bag and baggage, vanish into thin air, budge an inch, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, the milk of human kindness.” And some of the hundreds of words he bequeathed: “barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, summit, pedant.”

“Was he creating them? Was he channeling them from something else? Was he cobbling them together from past experiences?” asked David Marty, a former English teacher. “His creative spirit was just masterful. That was some piece of energy.”

Explication of swear words
A chapter devoted to swearing had the men’s full attention, especially a brief explication of the F  word. “Next to ‘OK,’ it’s probably one of the most common expressions we have in our language today,” Rossman said. “And in all intellectual honesty, we ought to realize that that is the case.”

Admiration was expressed for the word’s versatility and utility – as a noun, an adverb, an adjective, an exclamation.

“If my enlisted men had not had the F word, they would have had no communication at all. Absolutely none!” said Driscoll, who served as a U.S. Naval officer.

“No one can beat a Marine DI” at creative and colorful swearing, said Bob Nyvall, a retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant. “It gets results.”

Roger Golemgeske, a southern Wisconsin farm kid by birth, wanted to make the distinction between barn talk and kitchen table talk. “If you are from a farm family, and you speak English, you speak two languages,” he said. What was used in the barn did not cross the threshold into the farmhouse, he said.

The Rev. Dan Christ, an ordained Lutheran minister who specializes in pastoral care in nursing homes, hospices and hospitals, faulted the author for lumping “profanity” and “obscenity” under the umbrella of “swearing.” To swear is to curse using God’s name, which is profane, not obscene, he argued.

Worries about the future of English
All such distinctions aside, most men thoroughly enjoyed the read, and thanked Rossman for the choice. The discussion generated some anxiety about the future of English, especially deteriorating grammar, spelling and usage; the dependence on auto-correct, and the disappearance of editors.

“What’s wrong with the objective case!?” the Rev. Christ demanded to know, slamming the oft-heard “Oh, just between you and I …”

“OTP!? I’m supposed to know what that means?” bewailed Randy McCarty, an IBM technologist, who, along with some club members, despaired over the accelerating texting and tweeting and the seeming “return to hieroglyphs.”

 “Necessity is the mother of invention,” said reference librarian Will Richter, 28, trying to reassure his elders.

The anxiety and counter-anxiety all seemed to bear out Bryson’s central point: that English is hyper-evolutionary. “It is vibrant,” Marty said. “It changes every nanosecond.” Which makes the now 20-year-old book quite dated if nevertheless still enjoyable, said Jeff Wartchow, a former state securities commissioner.

And so the discussion wound up, with every man having “said their thing” – which, by the way, is Rossman’s most hated grammatical violation.
“It has been a pleasure to cahoot with you guys,” he said, closing to much laughter.

Sarah T. Williams is a former books editor at the Star Tribune, where she worked as a news editor and reporter for 27 years. She lives in St. Paul with her husband, writer Jim Heynen.

The Men’s Book Club of Grand Rapids, Minn.

About the club: The club was established in 2003. It meets monthly in the state-of-the-art Grand Rapids Area Library. Anyone can join, and there are about 16 standing members, with anywhere from 5 to 14 in attendance. Selections are made six months out, with each member suggesting three titles. The final call is made by Randy McCarty, the club’s judicious and evenhanded PIP (potentate in perpetuity). The men have wide-ranging interests and are open and curious. They are congenial, collegial and committed. “It’s an extraordinarily important part of my life, to be able to have this dialogue,” McCarty said. “Everyone is serious, and yet we have a lot of fun.”

Past reads: Everything from Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” to David Halberstam’s “The Coldest Winter,” John Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat” and “Tom Friedman’s “Flat, Hot and Crowded.” The latter motivated one club member, a city administrator, to apply for a $6 million alternative energy grant for Grand Rapids.

On the men’s wish list: Solar energy for the library and a visit from Minnesota author Leif Enger (“Peace Like a River,” “So Brave, Young and Handsome”).