The Secret Life of Words

The Secret Life of Words : How English Became English

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Communication is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from? Have you ever thought about which words in English have been borrowed from Arabic, French or Dutch? 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, but also of how words witness history, reflect social change and remind us of our turbulent past. Henry Hitchings delves into our promiscuous 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 an archive of our human experience and uncovers the secrets behind everyday words. This is a celebration of our language; after reading it, you will never again take the words we use for more

Product details

  • Hardback | 448 pages
  • 140 x 216 x 42mm | 662.24g
  • John Murray General Publishing Division
  • John Murray Publishers Ltd
  • London, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 0719564549
  • 9780719564543
  • 186,279

About Henry Hitchings

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. Educated at the universities of Oxford and London, he is the author of Dr Johnsons Dictionary and has contributed to many newspapers and more

Review quote

'Hitching's excavation are a treat. He presents the best gleanings of academia in a winning, conversational style. Almost every spadeful yields an etymological nugget ... elegantly and entertainingly written' -- Financial Times '[It] disentangles an intriguing narrative from a mass of information, revealing the distinct cultural climates that produced certain words and bearing witness to an increasing global language, always morphing into something new' -- Guardian 'A fascinating exploration of the rich borrowings, exchanges and couplings of the language' -- Ben Macintyre, The Times 'Hitchings delves into words, resurfacing with their surprising origins' -- The Times 'It is a book that brings etymology fizzingly alive ... it teems with vivid, quirky evidence of the way the English vocabulary bears continuing witness to our cultural history' -- Sunday Times 'His book is a patient, thorough and highly entertaining excavation' -- Sunday Times 'Hitchings's examples cover the full span of English' -- Observer 'Expert analysis ... this is a wonderfully well-organised and entertaining book, which thoroughly deserved to win last year's John Llewellyn Rhys Prize' -- Daily Mail 'Hitchings has teased out the stories lurking behind the language to provide a most satisfying whole' -- Publishing News 'Much more than a collage of etymological trivia, this is a dense and thorough excavation of the stories that lie behind the words we say' -- Metro 'Quite how Hitchings has managed to wrestle this dizzying mountain of dense information into such an elegant narrative ... is a feat almost as admirable as that of the great lexicographer. His book is painstakingly detailed, closely argued and suffused with a contagious enthusiasm for the secrets woven into the fabric of our words -- Daily Telegraph 'Hitchings steps deftly round the traps and the stereotypes, while throwing up great clouds of delicious trivia' -- Peter Robins, Daily Telegraph 'This clever, persuasive, delightful book is studded with entertaining observations' -- Independent on Sunday 'Wearing his learning lightly, Hitchings has produced an impressive successor to his acclaimed account of Johnson's dictionary' -- Independent 'A wonderfully detailed history of the English language' -- Good Book Guide 'A thrilling narrative history of our uniquely beautiful and thriving language' -- Catholic Herald 'Comprehensive guide ... with countless revelations and world-related trivia, this is the often surprising story of the words we take for granted' -- Heritage 'This is a hugely informative and non-academic account' -- Sunday Tribune 'Fascinating subject ... a detailed, comprehensive study ...there are lots of surprises, and the author's enthusiasm is infectious. An entertaining and informative read' -- Shropshire Star 'Much more interesting than a simple dictionary of etymology' -- Writing Magazine 'Marvellous, scholarly and beautifully written, quite the best of its kind I have read in years ... wise and witty' -- Oldie 'Wonderfully detailed history ... a rich and rewarding read' -- Good Book Guideshow more

Review Text

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. (Kirkus Reviews)show more