In terms of feel-good holiday stories, the impetus for the new book “So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off” will be tough to match.
The witticisms were complied by the husband-and-wife team of Shirley and Harold Kobliner. Published posthumously by Simon & Schuster under the watchful eye of the Kobliners’ daughter Beth, the yellow-covered tome features about 67 categories, 25 games and a slew of illustrations. As the pandemic slogs along, the book is meant to be a conversation starter and to bring the homebound together just when they may be running out of things to do.
“Happily married” for 65 years, her parents spent 13 years compiling the list and used the project to be highly engaged with the world, Kobliner said. The kernel of the idea was popped while the couple read aloud to one of their grandchildren’s kindergarten classes and mentioned how the youngsters had “ants in their pants.” The children’s curiosity and subsequent appreciation of the term prompted the Kobliners to start compiling a list of idioms. Kobliner said of her parents, “They said they practiced the art of listening. It was what they heard from friends, their grandkids, at the theater, on the radio, on TV or in their neighborhood.”
Born in 1929, her parents used the pieces of cardboard that dry cleaners use to keep fresh-pressed shirts unwrinkled to compile their lists. “Careful, clever and the original recycler,” Kobliner’s mother used and saved the 100 pieces of cardboard lists that were marked up and categorized, she said. Animals, love, science and technology and fashion were among the subjects. The latter includes “belts-and-suspenders approach,” “The Bible Belt,” “The Borscht belt,” “tighten your belt,” and “The Rust Belt,” as well as ones like “accessory to the crime,” “bustle about,” “a dress rehearsal” or “a fringe benefit,” Kobliner said.
Lifelong educators who loved each other and words, the pair used this linguistic exercise as a connection to the world around them, Kobliner said. “This whole pandemic has been so difficult, obviously. People are isolated, or they’re home with their families. They’re on Zoom for work and on their phones all the time. People are going back to board games,” she said, adding that the book is “old-fashioned fun and a catalyst for conversation.”
Designed to be intergenerational once the list passed the 8,000-word mark, Harold Kobliner paid his grandchildren $1 for each expression they found. “They would stay up all night writing lists. Then he stopped. He said, ‘This is too expensive,'” Kobliner said.
After Shirley Kobliner died in 2016, her husband carried through the completion and sale of the book. The husband-and-wife team also created numerous word games for the book that were inspired by Seventies game shows. After Simon & Schuster’s Tiller Press bought the book, art director Patrick Sullivan and Pentagram’s Emily Oberman designed the cover and the interior. Readers will find a myriad of illustrations from the British Public Library, which has more than one million vintage illustrations that are in the public domain.
Each chapter has a few images without text at the beginning for readers to guess the idioms. “We had so much fun. If there’s ever a job where you find weird pictures and match them to words, I want that job,” Kobliner said.
Kobliner said she barely knew what lexicographer meant — people who write dictionaries — but she Googled a few to reach out and was floored by the responses. One described it as “an astonishing collection,” and another said it could be “very useful in computational linguistics,” she said. “It’s such a cute, funny book. It operates on many levels in that it has that old-fashioned feel. You can just talk about things and play games with words.”
Known as an author of books about personal finance such as “Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties,” Kobliner said, “I have never gotten such reactions, of course. It really hits a chord in a way that personal finance and mortgages just can’t do it.”
The evolution of expressions is evident in the pages, too, such as ones for men like “Dapper Dan,” and others like “Debbie Downer” for women. “You can see how expressions evolve over time, and which ones aren’t even correct to say anymore,” Kobliner said. Readers can share their favorite phrases via @SoToSpeakBook.