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Book Review: ‘The Story of English in 100 Words’ by David Crystal

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Do you ever wonder how we got the words we use? The answer to that question, it turns out, can be amusing and fascinating as well as enlightening. David Crystal certainly makes it so in The Story of English in 100 Words.

The 100 words Crystal has chosen represent specific ways that words become part of our vocabulary and set the stage for a discussion of all kinds of other related words as well. Their stories shed light on both British and American history, as words reflect the times in which they were created .Many of them also illustrate the playful way in which English speakers like to combine, change and create new words.

From what may  be the earliest written English words (“roe” written on the ankle bon of a roe deer in the fifth century) to the latest words from technology (“twittersphere”) , this book is full of information you probably didn’t know and amusing bits of trivia.You probably know that English steals freely from other languages, but did you know that many of the words we use in every day speech came from  Cockney rhyming slang?  (“Bread” as a slang word for money came from Cockney “bread and honey,” for example. )

Crystal has not been shy about including words that are generally considered vulgar, as they are an important part of linguistics and of the development of social norms. You will find “bloody” and “arse” among his 100 words, and at least one other that is still not “proper”enough  to mention here.

You will also find words that were once popular but have faded from use like  “fopdoodle.,” and others that have developed surprising new meanings along the way, such as “wicked.”  Even such plain but indispensable words as “and” and “what” get their own short chapters.

Colorful, fast-paced and well-written, this is a well-researched and educational book that is never for a moment dry or boring. Once you’ve read this book, you may never look at language quite the same way again.

No word gets more than one or two pages here, so the book is perfect for picking up and reading in a random manner as well as for reading straight through. It would make an excellent gift for a college student or any lover of language.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.
  • TredynasDays

    Informative review: thanks. Worth mentioning perhaps that Prof. Crystal’s title alludes to a recent BBC radio series (and subsequent book) by Dr Neil McGregor, head of the British Museum, called ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ – a series of short programmes (then chapters) each based on an object in the BM. There’s also a possible glance at a book from about five years ago by Robert McCrum, The Story of English, and maybe another popular linguistic history by Melvyn Bragg (also paired with a TV series in the UK) called ‘The Adventure of English’. Prof. Crystal is immensely knowledgeable about the English language, but has the knack of making linguistics accessible and interesting. Finally it’s worth noting that an earlier book of his, from 2005, was called ‘The Stories of English’. So even the title of the book reviewed here is richly resonant…

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