I recommended earlier on that you pick up something by Bill Bryson. Anything really, because most of his stuff at its worst, is good. These are just some random quotes that exemplify his cleverness and ability to observe.

Changing their names is something that towns do more often than you might think. Scranton, Pennsylvania, has gone through no fewer than eight names, the most notable of which was its first: Skunk's Misery. Mellifluousness is generally given priority over etymological considerations, as with Glendale, California, a name that combines the Scottish-Gaelic glen with the northern English dale to form a name that means "valley-valley".

Most states have laws against fornication and even masturbation lying somewhere on their books, though you would hardly know it, such is the evasive language with which the laws are phrased. One of the most popular phrases is "crime against nature" (though in California it is "the infamous crime against nature" and in Indiana "the abominable and detestable crime against nature"), but almost never to they specify what a crime against nature is. An innocent observer could be excused for concluding that it means chopping down trees or walking on the grass.

The French were remarkably shameless about [jumping queues]. [...] In New York [...] the queue jumpers would have been seized by the crowd and had their limbs torn from their sockets. Even in London the miscreants would have received a various rebuke - "I say, kindly take your place at the back of the queue, there's a good fellow" - but here there was not a peep of protest.

Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn't happen often, but - and here is the absolutely salient point - once would be enough.

Some of these words deserve to be better known. Take velleity, which describes a mild desire, a wish or urge too mild to lead to action. Doesn't that seem a useful term? Or ugsome, a late medieval word meaning loathsome or disgusting. Our dictionaries are full of such words -- words describing the most specific of conditions, the most improbable of contingencies, the most arcane of distinctions.

A second and rather harsher problem is whether a person speaks English or simply thinks he speaks it. I have before me a brochure from the Italian city of Urbino, which contains a dozen pages of the most gloriously baroque and impenetrable English prose, lavishly garnished with misspellings, unexpected hyphenations, and twisted grammar. A brief extract: "The integrity and thus the vitality of Urbino is no chance, but a conservation due to the factors constituted in all probability by the approximate framework of the unity of the country, the difficulty od [sic] communications, the very concentric pattern of hill sistems or the remoteness from hi-ghly developed areas, the force of the original design proposed in its construction, with the means at the disposal of the new sciences of the Renaissance, as an ideal city even". It goes on like that for a dozen pages. There is scarcely a sentence that makes even momentary sense. I daresay that if all the people in Italy who speak English were asked to put up their hands, this author's would be one of the first to fly up, but whether he can be said to speak English is, to put it charitably, moot.

We have been chosen, ... by fate or providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It's an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe's supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.

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