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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English First Edition Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews
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ISBN-10: 0312428561
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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

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 focussed 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, but the absence of a strong over-all argument deprives his account of momentum.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

What Hitchings shows us is that the history of our vocabulary is the history of who we really are. Playing up the “acquisitiveness of English,” which has proved hospitable to words from more than 350 other languages, his book has a wide sweep, from pre-Roman Britain to online communities. Each chapter tends to address a particular influx of words, whether rooted in invasion and conquest or in the innovative use of the language by gifted writers. A chapter called “Angst” not only covers the twentieth century’s contribution to the vocabulary via the military, advertising, technology, and the business world, it also incorporates, in digressive but entertaining fashion, the history of coffee, a caustic evisceration of “management speak,” and an explanation of why purists are so resistant to new words. Ever ready with an apt quote, Hitchings makes a delightful and knowledgeable guide, privy to many fascinating facts about the language—those averse to the increasing power of technophiles are given a handful of pithy put-downs, including dot snots and entrepenerds. A well-researched, fluidly written book that wears its scholarship lightly. --Joanne Wilkinson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (September 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312428561
  • ASIN: B004KAB5AU
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,082,506 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Many self-confessed bibliomaniacs and word junkies first discovered Henry Hitchings on the publication of his first book, a creative look at Samuel Johnson and his great Dictionary, some two years ago. Now Hitchings delivers a second book targeted at the same crowd, one with a far greater scope and thus a massive challenge for even the most talented non-fiction writer: nothing less than the evolution of the English language.
Thankfully, what could have been a dry and overly-academic narrative is transformed by his style into a journey of discovery. We are at Hitchings' side as he almost literally revels in the discovery of the ways in which military and cultural invasions transformed English (not new or surprising material) to what was, to me, the fresher and more intriguing topic of how English explorers "repatriated" words from other languages they encountered, from the Americas to Japan. That thematic approach avoids another potential trap: the epoch by epoch survey, which also could have transformed this into a tedious read that none but scholars and the most dutiful or stubborn of readers would have completed. Instead, anyone reading this spend hours engrossed in an absorbing book -- and will never look at words and how he or she uses them in the same way again. Hitchings may not write for a scholarly audience, but this is far and away the best book I have read for the curious layperson on the topic, especially as our language is again being transformed by new technology (not just the vocabulary, but usage & popularity) in the same ways that it was reshaped by the advent of the printing press.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although it is fairly obvious that the "strong language" position that states we can only think because we have grammer and vocabulary is wrong, it is however true that the grammar and vocabulary of our native language does influence the way in which we think. And this simple fact means that the way in which our language works is not only interesting of itself but also revealing of our unregarded cultural psychology.

Some quick facts: the average Briton, German, or Norwegian uses about 3,700 words daily. The average American uses about 500 words. Yet Americans are no less intelligent or capable than their European counterparts, so what is going on? The answer lies in the history of British English versus American English. The former has evolved over 1,500 years and has enjoyed a relatively stable population in which each speaker comes from approximately the same linguistic background. The former, on the other hand, has evolved largely over the last 200 years and has never enjoyed a linguistically stable population. To borrow a simile from the world of computing, American English is the RISC version of the language: a Reduced Instruction Set Chip that allows for very rapid assimilation and communication - perfect for a nation that is perpetually being renewed by waves of immigration from all across the globe. In a country where someone from Ukraine needs to communicate with a native of Chile and a refugee from Darfur must talk with a shopkeeper born in Canton, a standard lexicon of 500 words and a much-simplified grammar (no adverbs, no perfect tenses, no subjunctives) is just what is required. The cost, however, is a lack of expressive range in American English which results in the speakers sounding simplistic and cliched.
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Format: Hardcover
Language is simply the way we transmit ideas to others, but it is never so simple. Because it is involved in almost everything we do, it reflects and affects history, culture, fashion, cooking, politics and more. You could study English, for instance, and learn aspects of all these spheres, because, as Henry Hitchings says, "Studying language enables an archaeology of human experience: words contain the fossils of past dreams and traumas." It is just the sort of study he has undertaken in _The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a big, amazing compilation about where words came from and what such histories show about world history and customs. Thousands of everyday and recondite words are herein traced and taken apart to see what made them tick and how time has changed them. Hitchings, previously known for an impressive history of Dr. Johnson's compilation of his dictionary, has a huge command of facts, but his erudition, plain on every page, is lightly expressed and his enthusiasm for his task is contagious.

Fewer than a quarter of English words reflect a Germanic origin; the rest have been imposed on Britain by being conquered nearly a thousand years ago, or by conquering or visiting all those centuries thereafter, or by sponsoring successful daughter nations. Our "cheese" is related to the Latin "caseus", for instance, but the Normans gave us plenty of food terms like "gravy" or "mustard". New imports needed new words; walnuts were new to Britain ages ago, and the name is a version of the Old English "walhnutu" which means "foreign nut"; it was from Italy, and the name distinguished it from the native hazelnut. Wherever Britons went, they ate, and they traded foods just as surely as they traded words for them.
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