Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic by Karen Stollznow is a great book despite the lack of an Oxford Comma in the title.
I mention Karen’s book not because it is new (is was published in 2014) but because a) it will be of interest to most of my readers and b) Mike Haubrich and I plan to interview Karen for Ikonokast in the near future, thus lending currency to the volume and topic. (Our interview will be about Karen’s work in skepticism as much as linguistics.)
Note: This book appears to be out of print, so it is hard to get at a reasonable price, but if you look around it can be acquired used for about $15. You can find it on Kindle if you go to the provided link and look laterally on Amazon, and there are used versions.
I have yet to see a review of Language Myths that is satisfying. Most reviewers claim that Stollznow is debunking the idea that language has magic powers. She does not. Rather, she explains the magic power that language actually does have. This does not require belief in anything supernatural. In fact, a careful look at each of the myriad examples of magic and mythical mysterious language the author carefully and richly documents, will leave even the most spiritual or religious reader convinced that natural explanations cover all of the phenomena that have any explanation at all The remaining unexplained things are comfortably rare and do not require an unnatural cause.
Yet, language is magic. As my friend Mark Pagel is fond of noting, language is the powerful magic that allows me to use sound waves to alter the growth and connections of neural cells inside your skull. Stollznow’s exploration is more detailed, of course, and richly culture bound. It is a detailed exploration of actual examples from across a wide range of current and historical story, literature, common usage, and rhetoric.
I recommend this book for anyone interested in language itself, communication, folklore, skepticism, or writing and literary analysis. (Notice how that last sentence LOOKS like it has no Oxford comma, but actually does.)
Karen Stollznow is also the author of God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States, and a book that I have a chapter in, Would You Believe It?: Mysterious Tales From People You’d Least Expect. Karen podcasts here.