Tag Archives: words

The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

There’s a bit of trend right now of explaining complex and lengthy topics using a specific number of short examples. I was first aware of it from “A History of the World in 100 Objects” where one of the British Museum curators picked 100 items from the BM’s collection that he felt best represented the scope of world history. (It’s a great podcast, and I learned a lot about non-European history while listening to it. It’s still available for download from the BBC, too.) Since then, I’ve seen several other “history of x in x objects” things, including a podcast called “Shakespeare’s Restless World” which is basically “The History of Shakespeare’s London in 20 Objects” or however long it ends up being.

And there’s this, The Story of English in 100 Words, which basically does the same thing as AHOTW, but with the English language in place of world history and with words instead of objects. David Crystal starts at the very beginning – or one of the recorded beginnings – of language in the British Isles, with what we know of Celtic, and goes through the words until he reaches the twenty-first century and “twittersphere”.

The most interesting thing about this book, besides just the etymological information about the words (“warrant” and “guarantee” share a ultimate derivation, but entered English at different times, for example) is its mix of cultural history and etymology. There’s history on the individual words, sure, but a lot of the words are picked not for themselves, but for the type of word they are. This word is from Church Latin, for example, and here are some of the other words that came in about the same time and for the same reasons. This word has shifted meaning for cultural and social reasons, and here are some other examples of how this happens. It’s not just a history of these particular words; it’s a history of how English has worked over the years.

Of course, with a combination of cultural history, linguistic history, and specific etymologies, there are only two ways you can go: ridiculously dense or skimming over the top. This book chooses the latter option. It’s definitely the right choice, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the lack of depth in some entries. There were times when I wanted etymology but got history, or wanted history but got etymology. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

If you like bite-sized history, if you like words and stories and stories about words, if you are at all interested in English, this book is a good gateway. An introduction to the craziness that is English grammar and orthography, and the way that people have treated both of them over the years.

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Made in America, by Bill Bryson

I normally adore Bill Bryson’s writing. I love his travel books, and A Short History of Nearly Everything, and Mother Tongue (although it’s been a while since I’ve read that one). I kind of want to be Bill Bryson, with his balancing between US and UK language and culture and his wonderfully readable and unique voice.

I didn’t adore this. I thought I would – it’s a linguistic history book about American English after all – but I didn’t. I found it too reliant on lists and not enough on stories and personalities. When he manages to tell the stories of etymologies, it’s fairly good, but even then Bryson’s voice is missing. There are a few good phrases, just enough to hint that it’s actually Bryson writing and not a ghostwriter, but overall it’s not nearly as entertaining as anything else I’ve read by him.

One of the things I’m most disappointed about is that I couldn’t find the reference in the book to one of the things mentioned in the back-of-book blurb: “why Americans say “lootenant” and “Toosday”. I’ve never understood why it’s pronounced “leftenant” in the UK, even though “lieu” is still “loo” – maybe a handwriting difference? – and I was looking forward to reading Bryson’s take on it. But I couldn’t find it – if anyone else has read the book and knows where I was reading too fast, pleeeease let me know.

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Word of the Year! (not mine, though)

This is my new favourite blog post and this is why:

I read Far From the Madding Crowd on vacation, away from my computer and, crucially, internet access. At one point, Bathsheba was described as “tergiversating” [or some other form of the word] – and it was the first time I’d ever run across that word, in speech or in print. This kind of thing is exactly why I have a subscription to the OED Online (www.oed.com) (thanks, Mom!). (Well, rare words in books and late-night discussions about etymology are why I have a subscription…you might be surprised at how often the latter happens. Although, if you know me and/or my boyfriend, you might not be surprised….)

Anyway. With no internet access, we had to look up tergiversate a few days later, after we’d returned from our trip. (If you want to get technical, first we had to look it up in the book, to remember what exactly the word was and how it was spelled, and then we looked it up in the OED, and then we had a discussion about its appropriateness in the context.) We were fascinated by the word, and had vague notions of bringing it into our everyday conversation – something, sadly, that I have been unable to do, since most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t have the vocabulary basis to get it. Also, tergiversate doesn’t really turn up on a daily basis.

But we remembered the word, probably more than we would have if we’d looked it up while I was actively reading the book. So to see it listed as a word of the year amused and delighted me. Well done, Macmillan.

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The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

The goal of reading is to immerse yourself in another world. To find yourself in a place, a time, a situation that becomes so real to you that it’s a wrench when you realise that they were words on a page. I remember reading a book with a blind protagonist when I was a teenager (I think it was The Cay but I can’t be 100% sure now, after fifteen-ish years) and being surprised when I finished that I could see. Intellectually I knew that, of course I could see, I was reading, but the world the author had created was so non-visual that it was a shock to come out of it.

I read The Name of the Wind mostly in half-hour spurts, my lunch break at work. Almost every day that I read it, I was surprised by the beeping of my break timer. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t take being wrenched out of the world anymore, so I avoided any kind of social/online interaction and just finished it.

And then I came downstairs and said, “I want to be back in this world. I’m ordering the sequel.” (I did check to see if it was at the local library, but all the copies are out and I seriously don’t want to wait that long.)

It’s hard to describe this book in a way that’s not trite. It’s an epic fantasy novel, with the medieval-esque setting and the swords and sorcery aspects of that – but it keeps from becoming clichéd. It’s also the first in a series. And it’s an amazing feat of worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure how he did it. With some authors, you can see how they do the worldbuilding. It may be skilful, but you can see that this is where they’re telling about the religion and this is where they’re laying out the social structure. There’s some of that in The Name of the Wind of course, but it’s often very subtle. The storytelling structure is incredibly effective, weaving hints and foreshadowing through the “present-day” bits as well as through the story. The world that he develops and presents is so incredibly real that it is almost painful to leave it.

Favourite quotable bit: Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of fire. A name is the fire itself.

The whole book isn’t in that vein, of course: that passage was said by a professor at the university where the main character is studying. But it basically sums up the motivation of the main character and, presumably, the impetus for the series. Words and communication of various forms – especially music, and especially singing, the combination of music and words – are so important throughout this book. People die because they say or sing the wrong things; names – pure names, not just the words – have immeasurable power; the stories told create the event and the character.

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself, in part because it’s the first in a series. This book, while a book in itself and a story in itself, is also very much only the beginning of the story. It sets up the world and the characters and the conflict, but the conflict is not even close to being resolved, or even completely revealed.

It’s an incredible world, and I can’t wait to be in it again.

(Sidenote: This book didn’t completely register on my radar for a long time. I’d heard the name, but got it confused with The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which I read several years ago. It wasn’t until the sequel came out a few months ago, and a lot was being written about Patrick Rothfuss, that it clicked with me that they were different books. Also, The Shadow of the Wind is very good, and also has a relatively recent sequel, which I have not yet read and still want to.)

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