July 12, 2020

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by David Crystal.
St. Martin's Press, 2012
(i-xxi, 260 pages)

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PREFACE = (page ix-x)

How can we tell the story of the English language? There seem to be two main ways. (page ix)

The usual approach is to provide an overview, identifying general themes and trends within the major periods of development: Old English Middle English Early Modern English Modern English. Authors give as many examples of usage within each period as space allows. It is a method I have often used myself, in such books as The Stories of English. Its strength, to apply an old metaphor, is that readers obtain a clear view of the wood; its weakness is that they see very few of the trees. (page ix)

The opposite approach can be seen in the many popular wordbooks that present a series of interesting English words and phrases. One book on my shelves explores the origins of words in personal names, such as sandwich and frisbee. Another explores the origins of interesting idioms, such as it's raining cats and dogs. I have used this method too, such as in my collection of international proverbs, As They Say in Zanzibar. Now we have the opposite strength and weakness: readers see lots of trees but do not obtain an overall picture of the wood. (page ix)

The present book brings together these two perspectives. It is a wordbook, as its chapter headings illustrate, but one with a difference. Every word has been selected because it tells us something about the way the English language developed. And in the course of exploring each one, I move from the particular to the general, relating the word to important themes and trends in the language as a Whole. A sense of linguistic history is reinforced by the ordering of the chapters, which is broadly chronological. And the approach has its surprises. Words such as "and" and "what" are not usually included in wordbooks, but they too have a story to tell. It is, of course, a personal list. (page x)

If you had to choose 100 words to represent the English language, they would certainly be different. These are mine. (page x)


WORD LIST --- Chronologically arranged (page v-viii)

1 - Roe = the first word: 5th century (page 1-

2 - Lea = naming places: 5th century (page 5-

3 - And = an early abbreviation: 8th century (page 8-

4 - Loaf = an unexpected origin: 9th century (page 10-

5 - Out = changing grammar: 9th century (page 13-

6 - Street = a Latin loan: 9th century (page 16-

7 - Mead = a window into history: 9th century (page 20-

8 - Merry = a dialect survivor: 9th century (page 23-

9 - Riddle = playing with language: 10th century (page 26-

10 - What = an early exclamation: 10th century (page 29-

11 - Bone-house = word-painting: 10th century (page 33-

12 - Brock = a Celtic arrival: 10th century (page 35-

13 - English = the language named: 10th century (page 38-

14 - Bridegroom = a popular etymology: 11th century (page 43-

15 - Arse = an impolite word: 11th century (page 45-48)

16 - Swain = a poetic expression: 12th century (page 48-50)

17 - Pork = an elegant word: 13th century (page 50-

18 - Chattels = a legal word: 13th century (page 52-

19 - Dame = a form of address: 13th century (page 54-

20 - Skirt = a word doublet: 13th century (page 57-

21 - Jail = competing words: 13th century (page 59-

22 - Take away = a phrasal verb: 13th century (page 62-

23 - Cuckoo = a sound-symbolic word: 13th century (page 64-

24 - Cunt = a taboo word: 13th century (page 65-

25 - Wicked = a radical alteration: 13th century (page 68-

26 - Wee = a Scottish contribution: 14th century (page 70-

27 - Grammar = a surprising link: 14th century (page 73-

28 - Valentine = first name into word: 14th century (page 76-

29 - Egg = a dialect choice: 14th century (page 78-

30 - Royal = word triplets: 14th century (page 80-

31 - Money = a productive idiom: 14th century (page 82-

32 - Music = a spelling in evolution: 14th century (page 85-

33 - Taffeta = an early trade word: 14th century (page 87-

34 - Information/s = (un)countable nouns: 14th century (page 89-

35 - Gaggle = a collective noun: 15th century (page 91-

36 - Double = a mixing of languages: 15th century (page 93-

37 - Matrix = a word from Tyndale: 16th century (page 95-

38 - Alphabet = talking about writing: 16th century (page 98-

39 - Potato = a European import: 16th century (page 102-

40 - Debt = a spelling reform: 16th century (page 105-

41 - Ink-horn = a classical flood: 16th century (page 107-

42 - Dialect = regional variation: 16th century (page 109-

43 - Bodgery = word-coiners: 16th century (page 112-

44 - Undeaf = a word from Shakespeare: 16th century (page 113-

45 - Skunk = an early Americanism: 17th century (page 116-

46 - Shibboleth = a word from King James: 17th century (page 119-

47 - Bloody = an emerging swear-word: 17th century (page 120-

48 - Lakh = a word from India: 17th century (page 123-

49 - Fopdoodle = a lost word: 17th century (page 125-

50 - Billion = a confusing ambiguity: 17th century (page 129-

51 - Yogurt = a choice of spelling: 17th century (page 132-

52 - Gazette = a taste of journalese: 17th century (page 134-

53 - Tea = a social word: 17th century (page 137-

54 - Disinterested = a confusible: 17th century (page 139-

55 - Polite = a matter of manners: 17th century (page 142-

56 - Dilly-dally = a reduplicating word: 17th century (page 145-

57 - Rep = a clipping: 17th century (page 149-

58 - Americanism = a new nation: 18th century (page 151-

59 - Edit = a back-formation: 18th century (page 154-

60 - Species = classifying thing: 18th century (page 156-

61 - Ain't = right and wrong: 18th century (page 158-

62 - Trek = a word from Africa: 19th century (page 160-

63 - Hello = progress through technology: 19th century (page 163-

64 - Dragsman = thieves' cant: 19th century (page 166-

65 - Lunch = U or non-U: 19th century (page 169-

66 - Dude = a cool usage: 19th century (page 171-

67 - Brunch = a portmanteau word: 19th century (page 173-

68 - Dinkum = a word from Australia: 19th century (page 176-

69 - Mipela = pidgin English: 19th century (page 178-

70 - Schmooze = a Yiddishism: 19th century (page 181-

71 - OK = debatable origins: 19th century (page 183-

72 - Ology = suffix into word: 19th century (page 186-

73 - Y'all = a new pronoun: 19th century (page 189-

74 - Speech-craft = an Anglo-Saxonism: 19th century (page 191-

75 - DNA = scientific terminology: 20th century (page 193-

76 - Garage = a pronunciation problem: 20th century (page 195-

77 - Escalator = word into name into word: 20th century (page 197-

78 - Robot = a global journey: 20th century (page 99-

79 - UFO = alternative forms: 20th century (page 203-

80 - Watergate = place-name into word: 20th century (page 205-

81 - Doublespeak = weasel words: 20th century (page 207-

82 - Doobry = useful nonsense: 20th century (page 211-

83 - Blurb = a moment of arrival: 20th century (page 213-

84 - Strine = a comic effect: 20th century (page 216-

85 - Alzheimer's = surname into word: 20th century (page 219-

86 - Grand = money slang: 20th century (page 222-

87 - Mega = prefix into word: 20th century (page 225-

88 - Gotcha = a non-standard spelling: 20th century (page 227-

89 - PC = being politically correct: 20th century (page 230-

90 - Bagonise = a nonce-word: 20th century (page 233-

91 - Webzine = an internet compound: 20th century (page 235-

92 - App = a killer abb(reviation): 20th century (page 237-

93 - Cherry-picking = corporate speak: 20th century (page 239-

94 - LOL = netspeak: 20th century (page 241-

95 - Jazz = word of the century: 20th century (page 245-

96 - Sudoku = a modern loan: 21st century (page 247-

97 - Muggle = a fiction word: 21st century (page 248-

98 - Chillax = a fashionable blend: 21st century (page 251-

99 - Unfriend = a new age: 21st century (page 253-

100 - Twittersphere = future directions?: 21st century (page 254-256)


WORD INDEX (page 259-260)

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AUTHOR NOTE = David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He is known throughout the world as a writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster on language. He has published extensively on the history and development of English, including The Stories of English (2004), Evolving English (2010), Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language(2010), The Story of English in 100 Words (2011), Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling (2012), Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain (with Hilary Crystal, 2013), and The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation (2016).

In 1995, Crystal was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language. He lives in the United Kingdom.

SUMMARY = The world's foremost expert on the English language tells an entertaining and eye-opening story of the history of our vernacular through the ages.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = The book is an entertaining history of the world's most ubiquitous language. David Crystal draws on one hundred words that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped to shape our vernacular since the first definitively English word --- "roe" --- was written down on the femur of a roe deer in the fifth century. Featuring ancient words ('loaf"), cutting edge terms that reflect our world ("twittersphere"), indispensible words that shape our tongue ("and", "what"), fanciful words ("fopdoodle") and even obscene expressions (the "c word"... ), Crystal takes readers on a tour of the winding byways of our language via the rude, the obscure and the downright surprising.

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PUBLISHERS WEEKLY REVIEW = From pre-eminent British linguist Crystal (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language) comes this delightful history of the words we use (and some we've forgotten) and how we came to use them. Neither a wordbook nor a linguistic history, Crystal emphasizes that his selections demonstrate how English --- "a vacuum cleaner of a language" --- developed by sweeping up words from other languages These "loanwords" range from "street" (from the Latin strata) to "dame" (with a complex history as an indicator of social status) from the French.

Moving chronologically from "roe" (fifth century) to "Twittersphere (21st century), Crystal spells out each word's origin; the word's sometimes-roundabout journey to the present-day meaning is explored, and often grammatical conundrums are answered. Case in point: why is there a "b" in "debt," as its origin was the French word dete (or dette)? Blame scholars who wanted sophistication and drew from the Latin debitum. Crystal also touches on the coining of new words when the mood strikes, citing famous examples in Shakespeare and Joyce as well as the crop of technology-inspired neologisms. Crystal's enthusiasm for --- and wealth of knowledge about --- the ever-evolving English language makes this a must-read for word lovers.

BOOK LIST REVIEW = Crystal, author of several books about the English language, offers up 100 words most of them common but some not so much that illustrate the origin and evolution of the language. Roe is here, designated the first word, found inscribed on a sheep bone in an ancient Roman town; at the other end of the list, you will find twittersphere, a twenty-first-century creation that (along with "unfriend" and "LOL") points us toward the future of our language.

In between, we find arse, money, y'all, fopdoodle, dude, gotcha, and lots of other useful, unique, and unexpected words whose origins are often not what you might expect. Many readers will know, for example, that robot comes from a 1921 play by Karel Capek, R.U.R., but how many will know that edit was back-formed from the much older word edition and not the other way around? The list of words is organized chronologically, earliest to most recent, setting the structure for an accessible, entertaining, and frequently surprising journey through the evolution of the language. -- David Pitt.


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