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Secret Life Of Words

by Henry Hitchings
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publishing date: 29/09/2009
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780312428563
  • ISBN: 0312428561



The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account of the transplanted, stolen, bastardized words we've come to know as the English languag. It's a history of English as a whole, and of the thousands of individual words, from more than 350 foreign tongues, that trickled in gradually over hundreds of years of trade, colonization, and diplomacy. Henry Hitchings narrates the story from the Norman Conquest to the present day, chronicling the English language as a living archive of human experience.

? Alcatraz Island was named by a Spanish explorer who arrived in 1775 to find the island covered with pelicans, or alcatraces. And "alcatraces"? The word goes back to the Arabic al-qadus, which was a bucket used in irrigation that resembled the bucket beaks of pelicans.

? What does a walnut have to do with walls? The word comes from the Old English walhnutu, meaning foreign nut. They were originally grown in Italy and imported, and the northern Europeans named them to distinguish them from the native hazelnut.

? A crayfish is not a fish. The name comes from the old French word crevice, through the Old German crebiz and the modern French ecrevisse. The "fish" part is just the result of a mishearing."
The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging chronicle of how words witness history, reflect social change, and remind us of our past.

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He is the author of Defining the World and has contributed to many newspapers and magazines.

An Economist Best Book of the Year

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.

"This historical tour of the English lexicon considers words as etymological 'fossils of past dreams and traumas,' revealing the preoccupations of the ages that produced them. The nineteenth century’s 'cult of fine feelings' gave currency to 'sensibility' and 'physiognomy'; 'popery' and 'libertine' sprang from the religious skepticism of the sixteen-hundreds. Many such relics began as imports: centuries of Anglophone empire-building have occasioned borrowings from some three hundred and fifty languages, including Arabic ('sash') and Sanskrit ('pundit'). The chapters are loosely focused on different themes, but trade is a constant thread: 'tycoon' comes from taikun, a Japanese honorific picked up on Commodore Matthew Perry’s eighteen-fifties mission to open the ports of Japan. Hitchings offers a rich array of anecdotes and extracts."?The New Yorker

"Many will know that the word 'muscle' comes from the Latin for 'mouse' (rippling under the skin, so to speak). But what about 'chagrin', derived from the Turkish for roughened leather, or scaly sharkskin. Or 'lens' which comes from the Latin 'lentil' or 'window' meaning 'eye of wind' in old Norse? Looked at closely, the language comes apart in images, like those strange paintings by Giuseppe Arcimboldo where heads are made of fruit and vegetables. Not that Henry Hitchings’s book is about verbal surrealism. That is an extra pleasure in a book which is really 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, like 'duvet' which was mentioned by Samuel Johnson, for their moment . . . At every stage, the book is about people and ideas on the move, about invasion, refugees, immigrants, traders, colonists and explorers. This is a huge subject and one that is almost bound to provoke question-marks and explosions in the margins?soon forgotten in the book’s sheer sweep and scale . . . The author’s zest and grasp are wonderful. He makes you want to check out everything . . . Whatever is hybrid, fluid and unpoliced about English delights him."?The Economist

"There's not a word in English that isn't furled-up history, resonating to some degree withits notorious unfairness and spin. Indeed, to peer into words is to discover dioramas of vanished worlds with model people busily framing meaning to suit their own purposes. I have never read a book that so perfectly reveals those hidden worlds as Henry Hitching's The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English. The book follows the 'pedigree and career' of the English language through history, exposing its debt to invasions, to threats from abroad, and to an island people's dealings with the world beyond its shores. In doing this, Hitchings lays bare the general spirit of acquisitiveness that informs English as no other language. But, for all that, his true object is to reveal past frames of mind and to show how our present outlook is informed by the history squirreled away in the words we use. This is an enormous undertaking, and Hitchings does it with deft command. He begins with the familiar story of how the basic fabric of English was woven from Germanic Anglo-Saxon and French Norman threads, and how the social hierarchy of those groups is reflected in words: those derived from Anglo-Saxon being neutral and earthy; those from Norman French smacking of sophistication and ease. It's all English; nonetheless, the most persistent acrimony over keeping English free of foreign contamination is internecine: Anglo-Saxon derived words are generally considered purer and stronger, more oaken as you might say, than French-derived ones, which are 'artificial, barbarous and infused with the dark scent of depravity.' Centuries of cross-channel animosity exist in this prejudice, efflorescing (to use an un-oaken word) now and again in eccentric partisans of Anglo-Saxon. Hitchings presents us, for instance, with the 19th-century clergyman William Barnes, who 'preferred wheelsaddle to bicycle and folkwain to omnibus.' For him, pathology was painlore and forceps were nipperlings. The book is full of that sort of entertainment. But Hitchings goes well beyond curious tales to penetrating discussions of changes in consciousness, of the dialectic between historical predicament and the language found and forged to express it. In a brilliant chapter called 'Genius,' which chiefly concerns itself with the 16th and 17th centuries, he shows the language and its speakers coming into their own. The number of words used in English exploded thanks to the growth of trade and exploration, the increase in printed works, especially those written in the vernacular, and the spread to England of humanism with its emphasis on rhetoric. 'Rejoicing in the vertiginous possibilities of self-expression,' writes Hitchings, Elizabethans and Jacobeans 'were mostly opportunists, plucking fresh terms from exotic sources.' But was there not a danger that English?so recently become cohesive, limber, and potent?would lose its peculiar genius as a result of its users' lack of discretion? Battles raged about the merit, indeed morality, of simplicity versus complexity, with the latter cast by its detractors as foreign-tainted innovations destructive of English. Thus, notes Hitchings, 'the coextensiveness of innovation and insecurity was now established.'"?Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe

"In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings' The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are 'witnesses.') They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a 'social energy.') English is an object of trade. (It was 'imported.') It is an animal. (It has a 'pedigree.') It is a human professional. (It has a 'career.') It is a space ('a place of strange meetings.') English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it?it's not just 'promiscuous'; it's a 'whore.' Hitchings is an excellent writer, and if the list looks excessive when pulled from the page, it's only because English is a dizzying and manifold thing."?Christine Kenneally, Slate

"In The Secret Life of Words, British writer Henry Hitchings examines words that have entered English from other languages. Through his look at words, Hitchings also explores the history ...

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  • Historical Linguistics Book, Not an Etymology Book
    From Amazon

    While the book does contain quite a bit about the etymology of English words, it does not go very in depth. Think of it more as a story about the English language, but one that is not very compellingly told. The book is interesting, but it is not very satisfying.

  • Disappointing
    From Amazon

    The book is hard to read - we can just read a few pages at a time. It is so packed with information. I thought it would be more interesting.

  • Good title, but deceiving
    From Amazon

    Good promise from title, stream of conscience writing making no sense. Not even saved for reference. To the library $1 book sale.

  • Interesting history of English
    From Amazon

    I love to learn new languages. I thought I might be interested in the subject of Linguistics also. So I read this book to see if I would like to delve into the subject further. I wasn't looking for an academic text on the subject but a readable text, one where no former knowledge of linguistics was needed. While the book started out dry it became more and more interesting and not as academic as I first thought. I wish I could remember all the origins of the words the author describes. Many have entertaining histories. In addition, the history of English peoples are described. It is a necessary requirement to understanding the history of the English language, and a welcome one because I feel I've learned more than word origins from this book. I highly recommend it and I will find time to read Mr. Hitchings other work on the dictionary of Samuel Johnson.

  • A book of words about words
    From Amazon

    Usual good delivery service. The book itself was a great read - I learnt an enormous amount about my own language.

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