The Book of Babel

The Book of Babel

Words and the Way We See Things

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320 pages

“Nigel Lewis has compiled a richly suggestive dictionary-essay rather than a narrative, in the course of which he leads the way along little-known but rewarding linguistic trails. Much of what he reveals is comical, much beautiful.”—London Daily Telegraph

“He's witty, erudite, and sometimes literally dazzling. A tour de force. Asserting our kinship across time and space, The Book of Babel restores some magic to everyday words and things.”—The Observer

This extended essay-lexicon could just as easily have been called The Book of Metaphor. It is many things—but above all it is a delightful exploration of the relationship between words and the world. Here is a lively guided tour round the Tower of Babel, biblical symbol of God's gleeful confounding of human speech. The Book of Babel celebrates the creative confusion of the world's languages as they interact in overhead “echoic” words, muddled popular etymologies, and the mythic misunderstandings among cultures far apart in space and time.

Most of all this book examines the unconscious confusions, the amazing and amusing “category mistakes” of metaphor. Why are whitecapped waves “white horses” in English, “sheep” in French, and “little goats” in Spanish? What is the connection between birds nests, baskets, and friendship? Eggs and eyes? Thumbtacks and bedbugs? In these and many other explorations, Nigel Lewis focuses on a single location—a field by the sea—o show how multiple meanings arose from the mixed and immemorial activities of peasant life. From these linguistic sorties Lewis shows ancient patterns of perception and prejudice at work as well as the mysterious, resourceful power of the mind to reap a rich crop of meaning from a small seedcorn of words.