This column wraps up the reviews of Grammar Girl’s 101 words series with Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart. Just as our superhero Grammar Girl came to the rescue of high school graduates who want to appear educated and erudite with her book Grammar Girl’s 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know, so too does she come to the aid of general readers who want to appear smart. A daunting task to say the least, but our heroine Mignon Fogarty, disguised as her Grammar Girl alter ego, is up to the task. As she writes in her introduction, “It’s a presumptuous task to choose 101 words that ‘smart people’ use. Who says what’s smart?” But difficulty notwithstanding, Grammar Girl forges ahead and forms a list of 101 words to sound smart.
As with the other books in the series, 101 Words to Sound Smart is formatted as a glossary, with words arranged alphabetically and most entries only 1 page long. Each entry includes a quotation illustrating the correct usage of the word in question from authors, reporters, actors, and other notable sources. For example, in the entry on wane, Fogarty quotes the author Evelyn Waugh, “My unhealthy affection for my second daughter has waned. Now I despise all my seven children equally.”
Although 101 Words to Sound Smart is aimed at a general audience, it is a useful guide for editors and particularly writers. Although all these terms can be found in dictionaries, Grammar Girl presents the information more simply and clearly. In addition, her explanations provide a means to understand not only the definitions of terms but also their usage.
For example, one of the terms listed in 101 Words to Sound Smart is Occam’s razor (also spelled Ockham’s razor). Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines this term as “a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.” Huh? Grammar Girl explains it as “a phrase that means the simplest solution is usually the right one.” Oh, now I get it. She then clarifies: “For example, if you find a basket of tomatoes outside your door, it’s conceivable that ninjas are trying to poison you because, although you don’t know it yet, you are essential for their enemy’s evil plan; but Occam’s razor suggests it’s more likely your neighbor who likes to garden, and gave you tomatoes last year, left them there.”
This book serves as a useful compilation of words most readers are generally familiar with but not deeply knowledgeable about. As Fogarty writes, “Many of the words that made the cut are at least familiar to most people, but convey an especially deep meaning when the reader has an understanding of history (Machiavellian, bowdlerize, Rubicon), different cultures (Talmudic, Sisyphean, maudlin), or philosophy (existential). The words are also general enough that most prolific writers could find a reason to use them on occasion.” A few of the entries I found most interesting were anodyne, atavistic, defenestrate, diaspora, ersatz, gestalt, hoi polloi, jejune, nascent, neologism, omertà, peripatetic, sui generis, and zeitgeist.
Overall, Grammar Girl’s 101 words series, including 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know, 101 Troublesome Words You’ll Master in No Time, and 101 Words to Sound Smart, is a clever, easily readable, and immensely enjoyable quartet of books. Through this series, our superhero Grammar Girl succeeds is vanquishing her arch enemy “the evil Grammar Maven who inspires terror in the untrained and is neither friendly nor helpful” (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/bio/) by offering an alternative to those murky, confusing grammar and usage books editors and writers have had to rely on for years.—Laura King, MA, ELS