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Language references 


What’s on the bookshelf?

Here’s an English-lover’s bookshelf to scan through.

Have a contribution? A comment? Something missing? Let us know!



ISBN or Publisher


Dictionary of Curious Phrases

Leslie Dunkling


Curiouser and curiouser...

A Glossary of Literary Terms

M. H. Abrams


This astonishing reference contains all you need to know about such terms as “metaphor”, “simile”, “purple patch”, and the like.

Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia

Bruce Murphy (ed)



Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

Revised by Adrian Room


What else can be said beyond “Brewer”?This is the senior reference for anyone interested in tracing the origins of proverbial expressions.

A Writer’s Companion

Louis D. Rubin, Jr. (ed)



Concise Companion to the English Language

Tom McArthur



Critical Terms for Literary Study

Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin



From Old English to Standard English

Dennis Freeborn


Fascinating! The action starts in the year 410 AD and continues through to the 20th century. Loanwords, spelling, and grammar are all explored. Lots of interesting sidebars and illustrations.

The Comprehensive American Rhyming Dictionary

Sue Young


What rhymes with what?

The Language of Metaphors

Andrew Goatly


A very thorough, but accessible, examination of the metaphor. Lots of examples.

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

David Crystal



A Guide to Old English

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson



Forgotten English

Jeffrey Kacirk


“Forgotten English is a rollicking guide to archaic words and their definitions…” A list of English words that have, for one reason or another, died out. Lots of anecdotes, drawings. Absorbing reading.

Wickedary of the English Language

Mary Daly



A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary

J. R. Clark Hall



NTC’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Origins

Bob Moore and Maxine Moore



Dictionary of Historical Allusions & Eponyms

Dorothy Auchter


“Bite the bullet, Red Letter Day, Moxie, Jezebel. Such historical allusions and eponyms enrich the English language. But how many of us know where these words and phrases originated”?

The Slang of Sin

Tom Dalzell


“Take a walk on the wild side of language through the vibrant and fascinating vocabulary of vice…offers a glimpse of our culture that will enlighten and amuse you for hours of enjoyable reading.”

Dictionary of Phrase & Fable

Ivor Evans (based upon Brewer)



Dictionary of Idioms

E. M. Kirkpatrick and C. M. Schwarz (eds)



Concise Dictionary of English Etymology

Walter W. Skeat



The Book of Intriguing Words

Paul Hellweg



The Wordsworth Dictionary of Pub Names

Leslie Dunkling & Gordon Wright



Dictionary of the Underworld

Eric Partridge


“Alley-apple, cheese-screamer, cunny-warren, goose and duck, peter man and zook are just a few of the thousands of intriguing terms to be found in this astonishing collection.”

NOTE: this one is a must!

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Obscenity & Taboo

James McDonald



Semiotics for Beginners

Paul Cobley and Litza Jansz




Stephen Pollington


This is a Modern English to Old English Dictionary and Thesaurus.

Looking for the Lost Gods of England

Kathleen Herbert


This book traces the names of the early English Gods and Goddesses. A fascinating look at etymological research.

Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names

A. D. Mills


“…From Abbas Combe to Zennor, it gives the meaning and origin of over 12,000 English place-names, tracing their development from earliest times to the present day…”


Geoffrey Hughes


“Tracing the history of swearing from ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions and those of the Middle Ages, through Shakespeare, the Englightenment and the Victorians, to the Lady Chatterley trial… a little discussed yet irrepressible part of our linguistic heritage.”

Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory

J. A. Cuddon



Mother Tongue

Bill Bryson



The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Words

George Saussy III



The Etymological Spelling Book and Expositor

Henry Butler


If you see this one, get it! This work contains an intact reference extending back to the early Victorian period.


 John Davies's commentary on Partridge

The following excerpt may also be of interest. It is taken from Paul Beale's preface to: PARTRIDGE, Eric: A Concise Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Paul Beale. Based on the 8th ed of P's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Routledge, 1989. ISBN 0 415 06353 3

"This concise version of Eric Partridge's _Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English_ arose from a desire to make his work as widely available as possible, especially to those for whom the price of the full volume is impossibly steep. It is therefore based closely on the 8th edition of the full volume, but with new material reflecting changes in the language since that edition went to press. Of course, much has to be left out: the main thing I must stress about this concise version [...] is that it contains only terms known to have arisen in the 20th century: it is intended to complement two other books, [the Penguin mentioned above] and my own edition of Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases, 1985. The 3 volumes between them contain almost all the material in DSUE8; the only omission is military slang of the earlier C20., largely and separately covered by B &P [1], and even then I have included those terms that have since come into civilian use."

I don't know whether the Concise Partridge is still in print, but even if it's only now available second hand I suspect it would be easier (as well as a lot cheaper) to get than a copy of the full version. I have it, together with the Penguin, and can thoroughly recommend them; much as I used to covet the original work, I find that the two abridgements between them are extremely comprehensive. Indeed, the concise version is very much better on recent slang than the original 8th edition.

[1] John B. and Eric Partridge: songs and Slangs of the British soldier,
1914-18, 3rd ed 1931. Re-published by A Deutsch as _The Long Trail_,





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