The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

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Overview

Words are essential to our everyday lives. An average person spends his or her day enveloped in conversations, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, directions, headlines, and more. But how often do we stop to think about the origins of the words we use? Have you ever thought about which words in English have been borrowed from Arabic, Dutch, or Portuguese? Try admiral, landscape, and marmalade, just for starters.

The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account not only of the...

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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

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Overview

Words are essential to our everyday lives. An average person spends his or her day enveloped in conversations, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, directions, headlines, and more. But how often do we stop to think about the origins of the words we use? Have you ever thought about which words in English have been borrowed from Arabic, Dutch, or Portuguese? Try admiral, landscape, and marmalade, just for starters.

The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account not only of the history of English language and vocabulary, but also of how words witness history, reflect social change, and remind us of our past. Henry Hitchings delves into the insatiable, ever-changing English language and reveals how and why it has absorbed words from more than 350 other languages—many originating from the most unlikely of places, such as shampoo from Hindi and kiosk from Turkish. From the Norman Conquest to the present day, Hitchings narrates the story of English as a living archive of our human experience. He uncovers the secrets behind everyday words and explores the surprising origins of our most commonplace expressions. The Secret Life of Words is a rich, lively celebration of the language and vocabulary that we too often take for granted.

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Editorial Reviews

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: 9780374254100
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/16/2008
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. Educated at the universities of Oxford and London, 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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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2013

    Okay

    Looks interesting but haven'r read yet

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    Posted December 23, 2008

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    Posted August 23, 2009

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    Posted December 31, 2008

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    Posted January 21, 2010

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    Posted December 31, 2008

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