The Life of Language, subtitled “the fascinating ways words are born, live and die,” by Sol Steinmetz and Barbara Ann Kipfer (Random House trade paperback, $17). This scholarly but easy-to-breeze-through introduction to the world of words, written by a pair of crack lexicographers (Sol is a longtime mentor of On Language), ranks as the linguistic bargain of the year.
From baby talk to back-formation, from minting new words to functional shift, the subjects are treated with amusing erudition. The chapter on reduplication – “flip-flopping higgledy-piggledy through the riffraff” – differentiates rhyming compounds like bigwig, hotshot, ragtag, sci-fi from repetitions called tautonyms, such as bye-bye, so-so, rah-rah, as well as from ricochet words in which the repeated element is modified: chit-chat, roly-poly, shilly-shally.
They reveal the source of the “schm-/shm- reduplication,” from the Yiddish koyfn, shmoyfn, “To buy, not to buy, who cares?” This construction led to the adoption in English of fancy-schmancy to mean “pretentious” and to the jocular derogation of a host of words and names (“Oedipus, schmoedipus – as long as he loves his mother”). Boinng!
–William Safire, The New York Times, December 3, 2006
From the Trade Paperback edition.