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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became…
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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

by Henry Hitchings

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English (7)  Italian (1)  All languages (8)
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
I took a month to read Hitchings's book, I admit. I had a hard time going through the historical beginning. I put it aside for a week or so and read some other books. And then I returned to it at a point where we/he had reached 19th century, and it was a breeze after that. I just get a bit turned around with all the invasions and imperial aggressions in the earlier history, but this may not be an issue for many.

Hitchings is a good writer with a knack for words on his own right. The book certainly has a narrative; it concerns how English became the way it is today through its borrowings and due to the invasions it experienced. I found some chapters fascinating, like the Voodoo chapter, probably because there was a concentration of words and intersections of cultures I was especially interested in. For example, the borrowings from Wolof (juke or joog, later become juke-house, later leads the way to jukebox), the good old story of bikini (one that I knew, but I like to be reminded of), and the origins of OK and jazz, not to mention hipster (a must-know if you live in Brooklyn!) His discussion in the same chapter of Gullah as the precursor for African English and in later chapters of how popular music and hip hop are the most successful mutators and creators of modern language is fascinating as well.

In the end, I learned a lot. Some of the most memorable etymologies: Magazine, bugger (perfect, if you have Bulgarian friends!), jazz (especially the journey of the word), sideburn (General Burnside, anyone?), doodle, usted (formal second-person pronoun in Spanish, comes from another language!), tulip, coffee, aloof, and nitwit.

The book has a nice index at the end that takes you to the word of interest, where you will find the world tangled up in history, invasion, violence, war, hatred, love, and absurdity. And that's the whole point. ( )
  bluepigeon | Dec 15, 2013 |
Factually fascinating, but lacking the wit and sparkle that makes some works (even academic,footnoted ones) irresistible. Still, this is one book I won't be giving away, and I know I will fondly pick it up often.The best example of a sparkling academic-ish book is "The Canon: The Beautiful basics of Science" by Natalie Angier. ( )
  petrolpetal | Feb 1, 2011 |
This is not a page-turner, but nor was it intended to be. I still found myself (slowly) getting through the book to the end. This is a fabulous source for quiz-night questions - part-history and all etymology. Hitchings wows with his breadth of knowledge of words generally and especially of borrowings from other languages. Great index of the words used as examples in the text - making it easy to dive back in and check half-remembered facts. (Like - the extinct language of Haiti gave us canoe, papaya, maize and cassava; honcho (as in head honcho) is Japanese and not Spanish/Latino as everyone in my very small straw poll thought.) Read October 2010. ( )
  mbmackay | Oct 7, 2010 |
An enjoyable relaxed stroll through history and the evolution of our language. Amongst all the fascinating details three things stood out for me in particular.
Firstly we have the choice of several words to convey similar ideas, the root source will reflect the character and the way the word is used. Anglo Saxon origin words will have a rough and ready, robust meaning, French origin words will have a more sophisticated connotation and Latin derived will have a formal legalise usage.
Secondly the paucity of words to describe objects and concepts available to our early speakers. As the influx of words into English is traced through the centuries you get this incredible impression of the horizons and range in interest opening up with words coming in to name and describe these new experiences.
Like the landscape we live our language is steeped in the history of our people. All those modern current words and phrases we use and live with so often are centuries old and record some long forgotten events back in the mists of time. Though our language is always evolving and moving forward it envelops our past even if we fail to realise it. What way to discover our history by understanding the origins of our language.
Surrender to the book and enjoy the revelling in us as a people. ( )
  tonysomerset | Aug 30, 2010 |
You like this book if you are fascinated by words and if you like history. A particularly good feature is an index of all the words mentioned and defined in the text. ( )
  tim.taylor | Apr 3, 2010 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
... about the way the English language has roamed the world helping itself liberally to words, absorbing them, forgetting where they came from, and moving on with an ever-growing load of exotics, crossbreeds and subtly shaded near-synonyms. It is also about migrations within the language’s own borders, about upward and downward mobility, about words losing their roots, turning up in new surroundings, or lying in wait ...
added by tim.taylor | editThe Economist (Sep 18, 2008)
 
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Epigraph
Together, at the same time; the united performance of all voices

From the French, which derives from the late Latin insimul, comprising in, 'in', and simul, 'at the same time'

'All these trifling things...collectively form that pleasing je ne sais quoi, that ensemble' -- Lord Chesterfield, 1748
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On a smoky October morning in 1697, a Puritan magistrate called Samuel Sewall went to visit the Lieutenant Governor at Dorchester, which is now a suburb of Boston on the American east coast.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374254109, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:40 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"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."--Jacket.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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