Figures of Speech : A Book Review

Figures of SpeechWhat if you could create a pronunciation guide to make speech more universal? What if a clock could teach us various sounds in our language rather than simply, “cuckoo-cuckoo?” Or, perhaps the United States should have its own unique language to really liberate itself from England. What about the effect of altering the appearance—or texture of the written word on paper? These are the kinds of questions that linguists were debating in the early 1800s, and they are some of the questions Tim Cassedy looks at in Figures of Speech: Six Histories of Language and Identity in the Age of Revolutions.

Cassedy introduces us to 6 people from very different backgrounds, born in 4 nations. They all had one thing in common—a passion for language. Each knew intimately that “language makes the difference between man and man.” The words a person spoke and the way they pronounced them could categorize that person and shape their life. But what if there was another way?

Princess Caraboo

My favorite part of Figures of Speech was the chapter entitled, “Mary Willcock’s Caraboo Tongue.” In it, Cassedy shares the life story of a woman who used the “I don’t speak English” excuse to get out of legal trouble. She spoke a fake foreign language and found herself in far deeper than she ever imagined.

One of the most interesting things about Figures of Speech is how pliable and yet, enduring, the English language is. Many misconceptions (such as Noah Webster being lauded as the George Washington of the American lexicon in his day) were set straight. The author has included an abundance of images in Figures of Speech, to complement the text.

Some Formatting Issues

There were some parts of the book that were a bit slow and meandering, but on the whole, Figures of Speech was very interesting and thought-provoking. The Coda was a particularly good way to end the book. The only thing I found particularly aggravating was the host of formatting issues in the Kindle (mobi) format. The captions and footnotes were often in the middle of a random page, with no point of reference from which to connect them. Also, some of the unique images of text don’t translate accurately to the digital font, resulting in meaningless content that the reader can’t understand. I have seen the paperback format, though (thanks to the wonders of PDF) and it is absolutely stunning! I definitely recommend purchasing the paperback of Figures of Speech.

If you enjoy history, languages, and the interesting issues that surround evolving linguistics, this is a must-have book. Skip the Kindle format and invest in the paperback. The beautiful images in the book are worth it.

I give Figures of Speech 4 Stars!

Thank you, NetGalley and University of Iowa Press. They provided an ARC of Figures of Speech, in exchange for an honest review.

About Heather Erickson The Ericksons

I am an author, writer, and speaker and homeschooling mom of 3. Since doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan with stage IV lung cancer in 2012, I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace. My books are available at

The Memory Maker’s Journal 

Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer

Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer

I also blog about living with cancer at Facing Cancer with Grace.

4 thoughts on “Figures of Speech : A Book Review”

  1. This sounds really good made more so by your contemplation of language. I consider body language the universal language but it doesn’t do well with proper nouns. Makes me wish for the Tower of Babel.

    • Hi Jacqui, It’s interesting that even body language is different in various countries. Some things we do are offensive elsewhere. And in India, they don’t nod and for “yes.” Instead, they bob their head from side to side. One trip we visited several countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In one country, we greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek. The next country we visited, I was still greeting people this way and was eventually told that in there culture, I was basically coming on to them. Only one cheek got kissed there. Oh, m goodness, was I ever mortified!

  2. Too bad that they didn’t format it for electronic readers. There are ways to make them easier for that format. At least the print version works.

    • Hi Liz. Sometimes it’s just a problem with the ARC, and it gets sorted by the time it’s released. I hope that’s the case with this book. The images were so good. But, having the captions to explain them is important.

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