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Amusing bits for wordy wits

LEFT in the wake of the Christmas whirl is a packet of language books to savor, some meaty ones and some sweetmeats. I Must Say: On English, the News, and other Matters (Warner Books: New York, 296 pp., $18.95) is a sampler of Edwin Newman's syndicated columns, his first book since ``Strictly Speaking.'' The broadcaster/word man has wry observations, not just on words, but many more this time on the wider world. For instance, after a trip to the United States Air Force Academy:

``The flying is compulsory. There is also a compulsory course in philosophy, which turns out to be about the ethics of war and when and whether it is permissible to use military force. The idea is to ensure that when anyone is ordered to drop a bomb, it will be done.''

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On an interview with Heinrich B"oll, the German novelist: B"oll, he says, spoke well of law and order, yet with suspicion: L-and-O people, in his memory, were ``absolutely lawless and disorderly.'' Thence, ``a lot of misunderstandings about artists and intellectuals....''

Newman, who is tuned in to fine music, winces at the mindless brands of rock. Like, it's in league with the use of ``like'' for hinting at realities without coming close to stating them (though this usage well predates rock).

He's also hard on overblown, underedited menus, those bills of unfair gayme and pastuh.

From baloney macroni, it's on to true grits: Stop Calling Me Mr. Darling! (Paul S. Eriksson: Middlebury, Vt., 145 pp., $15.95), by Carol Burdick, a teacher and poet. Its blurb is accurate: ``The flowering of an intimate friendship through correspondence between an aspiring poet and an unusually sensitive editor.'' It's like that gem of the genre, ``84 Charing Cross Road,'' Helen Hanff's transatlantic romance with a British booksellers. Only in a way it may be better: We see up close this person's actual work in the making.

Scholarly - yet gentlemanly - is Geoffrey Hughes, in Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary (Basil Blackwell, Oxford and New York, 270 pp., $30). Hughes, an English professor at an oasis of reason in South Africa, the University of Witwatersrand, sets out to correlate the changes that occur in language with what happens in human affairs.

``History, in the human sense, is a language net cast backwards.'' This quotation from George Steiner, a Paris-born man of letters, is one of the chapter lead-ins illuminating the book. Hughes manages to trace the power of words in the corridors of thought and action.

He notes that for many in power or aspiring thereto, consulting the dictionary has replaced consulting the Bible or other religious texts.

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Allurements of language, like those of the lotus eaters, alarm Hughes. He has no patience with the exploitation of the word, for private gain or pleasure, at the risk of public impoverishment. He laments the pat observation, the mangled metaphor, hidden agenda-izing.

The good professor appeals for having English once again be subject to ``legal eagles,'' guardians who mind the store of words. Newman would applaud.

For Russia-hands there's a concise and incisive dictionary, with the long view: A Soviet Lexicon: Important Concepts, Terms, and Phrases, by Roy D. Laird and Betty A. Laird (Lexington [Mass.] Books, 201 pp. [paper], $12.95). Its pith is pertinent to glean what goes on in any institution, a way through lexi-con games anywhere, not just in Churchill's Russian land of riddles.

The cry for ``openness,'' these scholar-Lairds note, is not an Ivan-come-lately. It's had on-and-off flickers going back at least to AlexanderII.

Take another key term in the Soviet lexicon, ``perception of necessity'' - expediency which determines the activities that lead to ``individual and collective success and progress.'' The Lairds say that ``the only correct Soviet way is to know and practice the `laws' discovered by Marx and Lenin, especially as interpreted by the current party leadership.''

For those at home in English but at sea with dictionary ``guidance'' on usage, there's Webster's New World Guide to Current American Usage, by Bernice Randall (Simon & Schuster, New York, 420 pp., $16.95). A hands-on editorial hand in publishing, she offers the purely practical (a or an?) and purely funny (``You're a goody-goody gumshoes'' - a pudding of boners and illogicalities with Sam Goldwyn as the star: ``That's the trouble with directors. Always biting the hand that lays the golden egg.'').

Some opinions in this guide won't please the purist, as for Randall's word on ``hopefully.'' But they do expand nicely from the neutrality of dictionaries, such as Webster's New World, a new edition of which is just out this fall, and for which this guide is a companion. And the entries show how Randall arrives at things; she does not say, ``Ours is not to reason why, so dot this `i' as I say.''

``Eschew obfuscation!'' might be the battle cry one gains from Pretty Ugly: More Oxymorons & Other Illogical Expressions That Make Absolute Sense (Perigee/Putnam, New York, 96 pp., $4.95). It's a second ground-breaker on oxymorons, or contradictions in terms, by Warren S. Blumenfeld, a management/psychology professor. It may hint of treatise, not treat, but it's mostly fun, and an eye-opener for seeing through incongruities such as ``legal briefs'' or ``destroy Viet villages to save them.''

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