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"Highly readable"

His quixotic resolve to transcend his inherent competence recalls the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, the lanky patrician whose unlikely stints in football and boxing lent nobility to failure. Like Plimpton, Mr. Alexander presents himself as an apprentice, but the reader quickly discovers he is also a master teacher.

A lively chapter on the origins of French traces its mingling with English, a marriage that inspired such redundancies as "cease and desist," which used both the English and French forms of the same word in a bilingual nod to Englishmen conquered by Normans. The English word "curfew," we learn, comes from the French couvre-feu, "the time when everyone must cover his fire." Mr. Alexander even manages a highly readable gloss of Noam Chomsky's linguistic theory, a feat of intellectual distillation akin to "Jacques Derrida for Dummies."

[Read the full review]