List price: $21.95

Biting the wax tadpole

Confessions of a Language Fanatic

In this decidedly unstuffy look at the staid world of languages, Elizabeth Little uses her favorite examples from languages dead, difficult, and just plain made-up to reveal how language study is the ticket to traveling the world—without leaving the comforts of home. Little’s exploration of “word travel” includes:

• Shona, a language lacking distinct words for “blue” or “green”
• Why Icelandic speakers must decide if the numbers 1-4 are plural
• Which language is the only one lacking verbs
• Just what, exactly, the Swedish names of IKEA products mean

Fully illustrated with hilarious sidebars, Biting the Wax Tadpole also addresses classic cases of mistranslation. For example, when Chinese shopkeepers tried to find a phonetic written equivalent of Coca-Cola, one set of characters they chose were pronounced “ke-kou ke-la.” It sounded right, but it translated literally as “bite the wax tadpole.” Not quite what Coke had in mind, but in this off-kilter ode to the words of the world, it’s just another example of language taking you someplace interesting.

ELIZABETH LITTLE is a writer and editor living in New York City. She has worked as a literary agent and as a writer and editor for the travel guide Let’s Go: China, and she writes regularly for The New York TimesTravel section. This is her first book.





“This is a fun book for grammar and pop-culture lovers alike. Little provides grammar basics and little-known facts by incorporating stories of her travels,Star Wars, Dr. Seuss, and other familiar icons. It’s both a breezy read and a useful resource.” —

“Charming anecdotes, witty sidebars, and attractive illustrations… Little’s strong sense of humor never overwhelms her love of languages in this fascinating yet educational introduction to linguistics for a wide, pop-savvy audience.” Publishers Weekly

Biting the Wax Tadpole is witty, sassy, and laugh-out-loud funny. Little convincingly demonstrates that, as she puts it, ‘language is nothing less than a great adventure.’ So is her book.” —Kitty Burns Florey, author of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

“A tour of all the quirk and queerness to be found among the world’s many dialects… her  meandering, highly-readable riffs on Finnish prepositions and Incan counting systems manage to be funny, earnest, and not funny because of their earnestness—something of a feat for a book that could be used as a grammar primer.” The Onion A.V. Club

“A wrap-worthy language book. A multilingual voyage, exploring the ‘quirks, innovations, and implausibilities’ of the world’s languages.” The Boston Globe

”It’s clear that Elizabeth Little’s omnivorous curiosity has suited her well… This short, neon-colored book walks readers through categories that on paper should seem dry, from pronouns to numbers, spicing everything up with cultural comparisons.” The Newark Star-Ledger

”[A] feisty romp through the world’s languages.” —Rob Kyff, The Word Guy

”If you like language, you’ll love Biting the Wax Tadpole. Elizabeth Little has mused on, used, and even misused many of the planet’s languages, and this fascinating and often hilarious book gives a full account of her adventures.” —Ben Greenman, author of A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both and Superbad

“[A] quirky, funny, intelligent little book… complete with amusing illustrations. Little has packed her work chock-full of the world’s tantalizing linguistic nuggets.” Newsday