The Secret Lives of Words

The Secret Lives of Words

by Paul West, Jane Isay
     
 

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We are often unaware of the unique and intriguing stories of the words we love. Thousands of our words have been so twisted, tangled, misused, and muddled over the centuries that their original meaning has been obscured. You'll be surprised to learn that table napkins were once made of and referred to as asbestos, that atom means uncuttable, that a cloud was once

Overview


We are often unaware of the unique and intriguing stories of the words we love. Thousands of our words have been so twisted, tangled, misused, and muddled over the centuries that their original meaning has been obscured. You'll be surprised to learn that table napkins were once made of and referred to as asbestos, that atom means uncuttable, that a cloud was once a hill, and that a companion is one who eats bread with you. Compiled over the years in his handwritten notebooks, acclaimed prose stylist Paul West offers us an album of treasures. The Secret Lives of Words is an "Antiques Road Show" of language, in which West chronicles the centuries-long travels of words across continents and through cultures. For word enthusiasts, speakers, writers, thinkers, and all readers, this volume recounting the intimate ancestry of language will enrich our understanding of and appreciation for the words we use every day.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"His is one of the most original talents in American fiction."-The New York Times Book Review "Paul West is a writer splendidly attuned to history."-Walter Abish
"A sorcerer of language."-Publishers Weekly
"West is a master."-the Washington Post Book World
Washington Post Book World
West is a master.
New York Times Book Review
Like Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, The Secret Lives of Words is best when savored piecemeal, bit by bit.
Walter Abish
Paul West is a writer splendidly attuned to history.
Roger Harris
...useful and wonderful flights of fancy from a great writer.
Newark Star Ledger
KLIATT
I'm a sucker for any book that delves into obscure etymological arcana, and this one is a doozie ("from Duesenberg, that eminently desirable motor car of the Twenties and Thirties"); still, I have to admit that West can be a tad obscure in spots even for my relatively sophisticated tastes. Language lovers will relish these eccentric and playful mini-essays on the derivation of words both common and otherwise, but younger readers may be downright bewildered by the author's dense and sometimes rambling reflections. While including the usual explanations of how "ketchup" and its variations derive from a Malay fish sauce, how "checkmate" is Persian for "the king is dead," and how mispronouncing "shibboleth" could mean instant death to Ephraimite intruders, West goes on to present free-associating ruminations that explore the implications of several hundred words in a far quirkier manner than one might expect in a book of this type. Whether or not his analyses are always accurate I can't be sure—he doesn't seem to know, for example, that "dis" is a shortening of "disrespect"—but they are consistently complex, lively, and downright fascinating. For those who are easily offended, it should be duly noted that the entries in this highly idiosyncratic glossary make generous reference to popular vulgarisms and the acts, organs, and substances to which they refer. Some librarians may choose to pass on this book for that reason alone, and that would be too bad. Readers who take words seriously (and, perhaps, not so seriously) will derive great delight from West's highly stylized prose. While young readers may not find West's book immediately accessible, it is a book well worth growing into. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Harcourt, 296p., $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Jeffrey Cooper; Writer/Editor, Long Island, NY , November 2001 (Vol. 35, No. 6)
Library Journal
Since his student days, West, the celebrated author of 18 novels (e.g., Life with Swan, LJ 2/1/99) and a dozen works of nonfiction and poetry, has kept notebooks of words that intrigue him, especially those with puzzling or obscure histories. In this wonderful little book, he shares some 400 of these words. West's special interest is in a word's origins and its evolution over time and across cultures. Each entry traces the word from its origin through its sometimes-tangled development into current usage. More than etymologies and dictionary facts, these entries are short essays about words as human "characters" with fascinating life stories. From digging up the origin of the word assassin among Muslim hashish eaters to finding the roots of quark in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, each entry gives the reader the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of untying a knot. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that word enthusiasts, writers, and indeed any interested reader can savor. Highly recommended.--Paul A. D'Alessandro, Portland P.L., ME Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
This wonderfully curious and eclectic volume falls somewhere between a quirky dictionary and a romantic sonnet. Novelist West (The Dry Danube, p. 422, etc.) is irrevocably enamored with etymology, and his "short homage" to some 400 words can be thoroughly enjoyed by reading A to Z—or by simply "dipping" into it, as the author himself recommends. From abacus to zymurqist (the two word histories boil down to "dust to dust," West points out), the entries range from the complete evolution of a word to merely a quick and surprising note on its modern usage. West truly believes that words are living, organic things with an etymology and a personality, and his passion sets a romantic backdrop for some enigmatic histories. His "choice of words" reveals a romantic and inquisitive personality, where the terminology of sports and cooking, medicine and Macbeth abound. He tells us that "amethyst" means "not drunk," that a "companion" is one who eats bread with you, and that "orchid" and "avocado" originate from various cultures' terms for "testicle." From "poetry" to "placenta," from "mistletoe" to "marzipan," West's collection brims with peculiar gems. He quips that "we might say alias is aka aka," and in another entry he claims that "you do not need this word until you find it." He also contemplates the origins of curious phrases like "stone the crows," "kick the bucket," and "screw the pooch." To West, joy is epitomized by language—"the silk of our so-called civilization"—andtragedyis exemplified by the dead-end term "etymology unknown," or EU. Words are a metaphor for his universe and he believes that "we rehearse on words for the mysteries of the cosmos, which, of course may not even have a beginning." Word enthusiasts will find trivia and treasure here.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780151004669
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
05/22/2000
Edition description:
1ST
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.15(d)

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What People are saying about this

Walter Abish
Paul West is a writer splendidly attuned to history.

Meet the Author


Paul West, called "a national treasure," is the author of eighteen novels, most recently Life with Swan, and ten works of nonfiction. A recipient of numerous awards and honors, he has taught at Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Arizona. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

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