Picks and Pans Review: Word Mysteries & Histories

updated 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by the editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries

The idea for this entertaining book came from letters that the editors of The American Heritage Dictionaries have received regarding the origins of words. Every word has a story: "Calling someone a gossip in the Middle Ages was not derogatory at all. Gossip was originally a compound of god, 'God,' and sib, 'blood relation,' and meant 'godparent.'... The word came to refer to a person who engages in idle chatter and rumormongering." Nightmare "designated an evil spirit (mare) thought to afflict sleeping persons by sitting on them and causing a feeling of suffocation." And whence the X in X ray? The discoverer, Wilhelm Röntgen, didn't understand the nature of this kind of radiation so he gave it the symbol for an unknown quantity. The book is full of more than 500 such arcane revelations and is illustrated with splendid wood engravings by Barry Moser. (Houghton Mifflin, $16.95)

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