A Terrific Primer for Word-History Buffs
What a great book this is. The story of how the English language developed over the centuries, evolving, absorbing and assimilating like the Borg from Star Trek, is a fascinating tale. Over the years I’ve read a few books on the subject, and had grown to fancy myself as something of an amateur authority on the subject. Well, David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words put that silly little idea to rest.
Crystal is a scholar all right, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, the author of several books, and a genuine authority on language in general and English in particular. Best of all, this latest book is as lively and accessible as it is authoritative and knowledgeable. It’s worth a look, or more than that—it’s worth lengthy, considered perusal. Even for readers who don’t consider themselves particularly absorbed by linguistic history, this slim volume is packed full of enlightenment and surprise.
The conceit of the book is itself marvelously simple. Crystal has chosen 100 words from the history of English, from the earliest known written word (#1, a runic form of “roe”) to the latest coinages (#99 “unfriend”, #100 “Twittersphere”). Each word gets a brief two- or three-page chapter of its own, summarizing its history, usage, and evolution over time. Along the way, many other word histories are thrown in, partly to place the word’s history in context, and partly to show how certain words and phrases led to others.
His choices are made with an eye toward illustrating where Emglish has come from and where it is going. Early words derived from the Saxons, Angles and Vikings are soon joined by Roman imports like “street”, occasional Celtic contributions (“brock”), and of course a huge influx of French following the Norman conquest in 1066—among them, food words such as “pork”, “beef”, “mutton” and “veal” (which is why we don’t speak of eating “pig”, “cow”, “sheep” and “baby cow”, but we do talk about eating “fish” and “chicken”.
The story doesn’t end there: English has been enriched by Shakespeare, by Persian and Arabic, by Hindi and Urdu and Spanish, and most of all by ordinary English speakers who compulsively create new words or rediscover old ones like “matrix”.
This isn’t just a pedantic history lesson, though. Crystal writes with a sparkle, an excitement about his subject which refreshes every page with clear observation and sly wit. Concerning “and”, one of those critical linking words that are so often left out of word books, he reminds us that “the four commonest words in written English are the, of, and and a.” He has a bone to pick with the old shibboleth (#46) that good writing will never allow a sentence to begin with “and”. He cites a well-known historical source that often used the construction. “And in the 20th century,” he adds impishly, “Henry Fowler, in his famous Dictionary of Engish Usage, went so far as to call it a ‘superstition’. He was right.” See what he did there? (Regular readers of PopMatters might be amused to know that this prohibition is among the magazine’s list of proscribed grammatical sins.)
Crystal brings his list of English vocabulary straight through the 20th century and into the 21st, considering such recent arrivals as “robot”, originally a Czech word dating from 1921, coined by playwright Karel Capek from the word for foced labor, robota. More recent arrivals include abbreviations like “PC”, loanwords like “Sudoku”, and the Harry Potter-inspired “muggle”, which Crystal tells us has been around since at least the 13th century in the sense of “a fish-like tail” and the 17th century as another way to say “sweetheart”. If there is one thing this book reinforces over and over, it’s that language is constantly changing, inventing and reinventing itself in new and constantly surprising ways.
Crystal’s list also has room for for words that have largely vanished from use, or were never too common among non-Britons, such as “swain” and “bodgery”. To be fair, he includes such Americanisms (#58) as “y’all” and Australianisms as “dinkum”, plus examples of Indian loanwords, pidgin terms and much else. He even devotes a chapter to that problem child of proper English usage, “ain’t”.
The Story of English in 100 Words is, to put it simply, delightful for anyone with any curiosity at all about why we speak the way we do, with the language that we have. It’s learned enough to be enlightening and accessible enough to be captivating. Buy it, read it, pass it on.