The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

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Overview

AN ECONOMIST BOOK OF THE YEAR

The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account of the transplanted, stolen, bastardized words we've come to know as the English languag. It's a history of English as a whole, and of the thousands of individual words, from more than 350 foreign tongues, that trickled in gradually over hundreds of years of trade, colonization, and diplomacy. Henry Hitchings narrates the story from the Norman Conquest to the ...

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Overview

AN ECONOMIST BOOK OF THE YEAR

The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account of the transplanted, stolen, bastardized words we've come to know as the English languag. It's a history of English as a whole, and of the thousands of individual words, from more than 350 foreign tongues, that trickled in gradually over hundreds of years of trade, colonization, and diplomacy. Henry Hitchings narrates the story from the Norman Conquest to the present day, chronicling the English language as a living archive of human experience.

A SAMPLE OF THE THOUSANDS OF STORIES BEHIND THE WORDS:

• Alcatraz Island was named by a Spanish explorer who arrived in 1775 to find the island covered with pelicans, or alcatraces. And "alcatraces"? The word goes back to the Arabic al-qadus, which was a bucket used in irrigation that resembled the bucket beaks of pelicans.

• What does a walnut have to do with walls? The word comes from the Old English walhnutu, meaning foreign nut. They were originally grown in Italy and imported, and the northern Europeans named them to distinguish them from the native hazelnut.

• A crayfish is not a fish. The name comes from the old French word crevice, through the Old German crebiz and the modern French ecrevisse. The "fish" part is just the result of a mishearing."

The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging chronicle of how words witness history, reflect social change, and remind us of our past.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Hitchings here provides a colorful, thematic history of the English language . . . Hitchings is a fine writer with an eye for the illustrative detail . . . With ninety-plus pages of notes, sources, and useful indexes, this is fine choice for libraries and a ‘smorgasbord’ for language aficionados. Highly recommended.”—E. L. Battistella, Choice

“A rich and readable history.”—The Boston Globe

“Astonishing . . . Every page of The Secret Life of Words is stuffed with rewards. . .Painstakingly detailed, closely argued and suffused with a contagious enthusiasm.”—Daily Telegraph (UK)

“A galloping history of English-speaking people and lists of words they have borrowed or invented.”—The New York Sun

"Filled with fascinating nuggets."—The Independent (UK)

"A delightful book."—The Roanoke Times

Kirkus Reviews
Hitchings, who wrote earlier about Samuel Johnson's dictionary (Defining the World, 2005), again displays his astonishing knowledge of the English language's myriad roots. English has been and no doubt always will be a salmagundi, the author declares, blending words from many other tongues into one splendid, ever-changing linguistic dish. It's vocabulary that interests him here-grammar is far more resistant to change, he notes-and after some factual table-setting (approximately 350 languages have contributed to English) he serves his main courses one century at a time. Hitchings effortlessly blends world history with linguistic history, helping us see that we appropriate words for numerous reasons: trade, conquest, fashion, food, art and so on. The Anglo-Saxons, we learn, had more than 30 words for warrior. From Arabic we gained words for alchemy that then migrated into math and science, such as zero and cipher. Chaucer, the author writes, was "a literary magpie" who liberated the language. The rise of the printing press ignited another vocabulary explosion. In the 16th century, English conflicts with Spain brought an influx of Spanish words, among them armada, hammock and mosquito. Shakespeare is the first known user of some 1,700 words. From the New World came potato and tobacco; Capt. John Smith was the first to use adrift and roomy. Greek, avers Hitchings, has remained a source of high-culture (even highfalutin) words like deipnosophist and pathos. Many French words deal with culture, leisure and food (no surprise there); soiree first appeared in the fiction of Fanny Burney. The British occupation of India brought the words teapot, curry and pajamas. In later days, advertising,mass media, the Internet and the "global village" have all accelerated the growth and spread of English. Hitchings notes in several places the impossibility and undesirability of attempting to close and bar the doors of this eternally flexible and omnivorous tongue. Learned, wise and educative, though a bit weighty for the average nightstand.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312428563
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/29/2009
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 631,107
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

HENRY HITCHINGS was born in 1974. He is the author of Defining the World and has contributed to many newspapers and magazines.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    Okay

    Looks interesting but haven'r read yet

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