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Dictionary of Word Origins: Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words

4.3 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1559702140
ISBN-10: 1559702141
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Learn about the hidden and often surprising histories of and connections between English words and their non-English ancestors. Perhaps the best inexpensive etymological dictionary available today.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Arcade Publishing (November 23, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1559702141
  • ISBN-13: 978-1559702140
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #787,022 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
... because I use it so often. That's right, there are so many fascinating, helpful word origins in this book that due to over-use and laying the book out flat to read it (over breakfast, etc.), it's the first book I actually split in two down the binding. So now I'll need to get another one. I read a few word origins from this book almost daily, it's my favorite word book. These word origins reveal twists, turns and reverses of the human mind, history and culture over the ages. Mr. Ayto doesn't just pick a few of the most interesting words; I like that a wide variety of words -- including mundane -- can be found here. The author is candid (marking with an asterisk) about which pre-literate word origins involve guess work. At the end of entries you'll often find cross-referenced words.
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Format: Paperback
I think this book may hold the record for most quickly becoming indispensible to me. It contains concise, single paragraph histories of the backgrounds of 8,000 words in our language. One thing I really enjoy about it is the way it combines presentations of the most common, everyday words with the coolest, most interesting ones.
Offhand, one of my favorite words would have to be the word "guitar." Did you know that the word guitar started out as the Greek word "kithara," and came to English by means of two separate routes? On the one hand, it passed directly through Europe, by way of the Roman Empire, becoming "cithara" in Latin and then "citole" in Middle English. On the other hand, it went through North Africa with the Muslims as a "qitar" in Arabic, then into Spanish by way of the Moors as "guitarra," then into French as "guitare," then finally into English as "guitar." (A citole, by the way, for all you non-Chaucer fans out there, was a medieval stringed instrument that we no longer have with us.)
That's just one word. There are 7,999 more entries like that, and all of them are amazing. This book is so worth the money it isn't even funny. Two million thumbs up.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ayto provides "the true historie" of more than 8,000 English-language words in a single volume, one which I consider to be the most useful of the several I own and regularly consult. Each entry is brief and precise. If you have a need and interest, or if you are merely curious about word origins and plan to purchase only one reference source, this is the one.
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Format: Paperback
I love this book. If you have a passion for etymology--or even if you don't--you will eat this book up. As a writer, I use it often for research, but sometimes I just sit and read it for pleasure. Well written, comprehensive, and delightful!
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By Dew on January 2, 2005
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderful book! It is indispensable to students or anyone who reads books that have been written in the past, or for those with a curious nature.

The dictionary is in alphabetical order with stories of how each word came into the English language and has evolved over time.

For example:

Alcohol - Originally, alcohol was a powder, not a liquid. The word comes from Arabic al-kuhul, literally `the kohl'--that is, powdered antimony used as a cosmetic for darkening the eyelids. This was borrowed into English via French or Medieval Latin, and retained this `powder' meaning for some centuries (for instance, `They put between the eyelids and the eye a certain black powder made of a mineral brought from the kingdom of Fez, and called Alcohol,' George Sandys, Travels 1615). But a change was rapidly taking place: from specifically `antimony,' alcohol came to mean any substance obtained by sublimation, and hence `quintessence.' Alcohol of wine was thus the `quintessence of wine,' produced by distillation or rectification, and by the middle of the 18th century alcohol was being used on its own for the intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor. The more precise chemical definition (a compound with a hydroxyl group bound to a hydrocarbon group) developed in the 19th century.
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Format: Paperback
Among the memorable events of my life, is the discovery of etymology. Among the disovery of etymology, is this book. Wow.
Ayto's style is simple, clear, and full of not only the technical details you might like (Indo European roots - Latin/Greek/etc. roots) but I continue to sift through Ayto's work even after consulting mammoth dictionaries such as Chamber's. He has insight, and offers some of the anacdotes that make the history of words so fascinating. Famous examples are Sandwhich, etc. but who knew that 'Alcatraz' is related to Pellicans is related to the Arabic word for 'Buckets' that have sprouts shaped like Pelican beaks?
I quickly run out of breath reading his work as I fing myself so often saying 'Huh!' ... 'Ho!' ... 'Huh?'
I love it.
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By A Customer on August 9, 2002
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Very fine work, although at around 8000 words the book is certainly not an exhaustive reference. I use it to supplement my Chambers Etymology along with several other word histories. What it lacks in quantity it makes up in quality. The British spelling is a bit annoying at times but that is a minor gripe. The book is a wonderful "browser" as well as a practical reference. Overall, a must-have for any English etymology enthusiast. I was fortunate to locate a (mint) hardcover edition and I find that format much more durable and pleasing to use than a paperback.
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