Intrepid Reader Barney of Ithaca, NY, is getting a lot of play on WordsWordsWords this week. Today’s mention is due to the fact that I’m reading a book he recommended. Damp Squid: The English Language Laid Bare, by Jeremy Butterfield, is a small volume—a quick, 165-page read from Oxford University Press. It really packs a punch for its size; it’s got so much great information that I’ve ordered a copy for my own collection. (Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to return this one to the library that’s so kindly lent it to me.)
Butterfield uses the Oxford Corpus—the group of electronic texts, comprising billions of words, that is used to do research on the language and to compile Oxford’s dictionaries—as a tool to explore various linguistic topics. He talks about things like how many words there are, what counts as a word, categories of word origin, the vagaries of spelling, usage pet peeves, and idiomatic phrases. He has a very entertaining writing style, with just enough humor to lighten the discussion without distracting from the information being shared. Some of his examples are British things that I’ve never heard of (“green-wellie brigade”?), but it’s fun for me to see that new vocabulary as well.
One of those British examples is the title phrase, “damp squid.” Apparently, if you were from across the pond, you’d know that “damp squid,” or the phrase, “damp squib,” of which the former is a misspeaking, means that something is a disappointment. “Squib” means a firework, so clearly a damp one would be no fun at all. Butterfield goes on to say
As the word squib now rarely appears outside this idiom—though still used in some areas, for instance parts of Scotland—it no longer makes sense to some people. Replacing it with the word squid does two things: it links it to a word that people know, and it breathes new life into an otherwise dead metaphor. Squid intensifies the idea of dampness; and there is, arguably, a strong metaphorical link between dampness and disappointment: a wet blanket, to rain on someone’s parade, not set the Thames on fire, to go belly-up, to pour cold water on something, and so forth.
While I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone but dilettantes and wordfreaks, I believe you’ll really enjoy it if you’re in either of those two groups. Check your local library!