LONDON — With the air of a triumphant conjurer, Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editors’ copy editor (he is the veteran copy chief of Random House) says that in his new book, “Dreyer’s English,” there are two important Yiddish words.
“There’s a ‘geshrei’ and there’s an ‘ongepatchke,’” Dreyer says proudly, referring to the words for “shriek,” and “overdone” or “tacky,” respectively.
There are also a “kibitz” and a “kibbutz,” but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Dreyer’s book, subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style,” is one of the wittiest and most authoritative takes on the English language in recent publishing history.
Released in the US in early January, “Dreyer’s English” raced up the New York Times bestseller charts. Now, the author has doubled down by putting out a version of his book in British English.
In London to promote the UK edition, Dreyer chewed the fat with The Times of Israel to discuss word differences, love of language, where not to put an apostrophe — and, perhaps surprisingly, his Long Island childhood, replete with Jewish summer camps and a watershed seven-week visit to Israel as a teenager.
Anyone who uses Twitter is likely to have encountered Dreyer, where he presides, like a slightly owlish Buddha, over appropriate use of the Oxford, or serial, comma, and other arcane avenues of grammar.
His followers also get an entertaining crash course in obscure films, Broadway musicals, and long-forgotten cabaret stars — and are additionally treated to many pictures of his much-loved dog, Sallie.
Reading Dreyer is an education, and speaking with him is like taking a hilariously entertaining college course. And yet, as he recalls, his decision to go into publishing could have gone very differently. He could easily, he says, have ended up in the restaurant trade rather than supervising hundreds of books that have made their way into the modern English canon, from writers such as Elizabeth Strout, E.L. Doctorow, and Michael Chabon.
Dreyer was born in the Bronx, but his family moved to Long Island when he was six and his elder sister was 10. Their father, Stanley, was a lawyer; Dreyer’s sister followed in his footsteps. Their paternal grandfather came from Latvia and ran a horse-drawn milk cart when he first came to America.
His grandfather soon abandoned the Tevye-style horse and cart, went into the army, and got himself an education. By the time Dreyer was born, his grandfather owned a garage in the Bronx, which Dreyer used to visit.
He admits, though, that the attraction was not the garage, but the “industrial bagel place right across the street.” It was a constant source of fascination for the boy, who regularly watched the bagel-making process and usually succeeded in winning “a bagel that was too hot to eat, it was so fresh.”
His mother’s father owned a lumber yard on Long Island. This side of the family was from Poland, though en route to America the grandparents stopped off in London for 10 years, perhaps laying the foundation for Dreyer, who is a passionate Anglophile.
Dreyer says his father was not “particularly Orthodox,” but that “if he was going to identify Jewishly, it was going to be on the Orthodox side of things.”
In fact, he says, on Sabbath the elder Dreyer used to walk rather than drive to the Reform synagogue they eventually joined — Temple Sinai of Roslyn, the largest Reform congregation on Long Island.
Brother and sister were bar- and bat-mitzvahed there, and Dreyer himself became an enthusiastic camper at a Jewish summer camp in Massachusetts from the age of 10, eventually even staying on as a counselor.
“It was lovely — I enjoyed it, I was enamored of my Judaism. I was — and am — a nice Jewish boy,” he says.
At 14, with the National Federation of Temple Youth, Dreyer took a seven-week trip to Israel, which he loved, and which led to a short-lived ambition to become a rabbi.
By his late teens, however, Dreyer was struggling with his sexuality and began to feel more isolated from his community. He didn’t really know what he wanted to do in life, other than go to university. The fleeting notion that he might become an actor led him to Northwestern University in Illinois, which had a prestigious drama faculty.
His one aim, at this point, was to get out of New York and discover who he was. Two things became clear: he was, indeed, gay, and he was never going to become a top-notch actor.
Instead, he enjoyed living in the Midwest so much that he stayed in Chicago for almost a decade after he graduated. He moved in with his first serious boyfriend, and rather than get an office job, supported himself by waiting tables and working in a variety of restaurants, eventually rising to the rank of manager.
He describes this time — in both the American and British version of his book — as “faffing around.” He was enjoying himself in the food industry, wasn’t over-exerting himself, and spent a lot of time going to theater and cinema in Chicago or hanging out with friends.
It was a relaxing life after years of pushing hard at school and university. But, inevitably, things changed.
A new boyfriend, a medic, chose to do his residency in New York. After so many years away, Dreyer returned to New York, too.
“I applied for, and got, jobs in two fancy restaurants near where we lived. The one I didn’t choose became one of the great New York restaurants, fashionable and famous, and had I taken that job I might well have stayed in the restaurant industry. I liked it and I was very good at it,” Dreyer says.
Instead, with some mordant glee, Dreyer recounts that he picked the other restaurant — the one “doomed to failure.”
“I knew I wasn’t going to be an actor or go to rabbinical school — I had to find something to do,” Dreyer says. “I had a friend who was a published writer, and I asked him if there was something in the publishing industry I could do. He’d let me see the bound galleys of his books and I’d made suggestions about what he meant. He said he thought I could be a good proofreader, and the great moment came when he introduced me to his production editor at St. Martin’s Press.”
It turned out, says Dreyer, that he had a knack for this work, and so he wrapped up his restaurant career — and moved, by degrees, into full-time proofreading and then copy editing for Random House.
Dreyer says he has always been fond of the way Torah is open to interpretation, and has perhaps brought a little of that meticulous fascination to his copy editing work. He also acknowledges that Jews may have a predilection for words, not least because of the tendency move around and collect languages.
“Dreyer’s English,” in both its American and British editions, is the culmination of nearly three decades of experience in supervising the output of hundreds of books. It is both affectionate and warmly prescriptive.
“Step back,” he writes, addressing the proper use of apostrophes. “I’m about to hit the CAPS LOCK KEY. DO NOT EVER ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD. ‘NOT EVER’ AS IN ‘NEVER.’ You may reapproach.”
Apostrophes, declares Dreyer, are not to be used “for bananas, potatoes, bagels, princesses, Trumans, Adamses, Obamas, or whatever else you’ve got more than one of.”
It took him six years to write the American edition of the book, but the British version was completed within an almost indecent five months — causing this British writer to wonder about two glaring Americanisms that have made their way into it.
One is the use of “likely,” where Brits would more usually use “probably”; the other is the capping up of a word after an open colon: Like this, rather than the British preference: a lower-case following a colon.
In a book in which Dreyer shows how the British “S” is used in place of the American “Z,” or words such as “colour,” “honour,” and “vigour” are spelled with a British “U,” Dreyer’s choice of “likely” and the upper-case after a colon seems a little arbitrary.
But, Dreyer reminds me, he is a copy editor. And he has had years of dealing with authors who insist on saying things the way they want to say them. Now it’s his turn.
“I am an American, I speak and write American English, and at the end of the day, it’s my voice, and my book,” he says.
And that is his final “geshrei.”