By Phil Cousineau
Viva Editions, $16.95, 402 pages
Wordsmiths start young, scribbling in the margin of school notebooks scintillating, ruminate, Antofagasta. And later, define favorite words, gathering a personal, perhaps private collection: Robespierre, garrulous, existential. Phil Cousineau has it in spades. Beyond the sound, the lyrical or harshness, he pursues the etymology, the path taken to become part of the vocabulary we speak and read. And far from binding them selfishly to himself, he shares. The Painted Word, follows the 30 books he has created already, a treasury, a compendium, each word with its derivation spelled out in a compact paragraph. Many are (more or less) familiar; carousel, buxom, kvetch. Gathered from around the world, he tracks back centuries or just a decade or so: dandelion, from the French ‘tooth of a lion,’ acceptable if a stretch, the Middle Dutch huckster, okay…the source is still debated.
Is the book good? Fun? Compelling? Of course, but frustrating, too. It isn’t a dictionary, it is a glorious whim. And not to ignore Gregg Chadwick’s gauzy, haunting drawings woven through the pages.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster