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Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins (Perennial Library) Paperback – December 8, 1993


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks (December 8, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006272049X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062720498
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,254,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Charles Earle Funk was editor in chief of the Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary Series. He wrote several other books on word and phrase origins, including Horsefeathers, Heavens to Betsy!, and Thereby Hangs a Tale.


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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 30 people found the following review helpful By "smoak" on August 25, 2000
Format: Paperback
Today I again wished I still had access to THEREBY HANGS A TALE. I had read most of it years ago while staying with a friend and have missed its delightful insights into how our language grows and changes. Each word's origin is explained with great humor and insight. This time, however, instead of just feeling blue for not having it, I searched Amazon.com [bless them and their search engine] and by golly, Ollie, I found it. I can't wait to lay eyes and mind again on its wondrous pages. If you don't already love words and their deeper meanings, this may stimulate you into a grand new experience with one of life's simple pleasures.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A. Friedman on November 11, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is NOT an etymological reference work (for which I recommend Ayto), but rather a mentally stimulating 300 pages for browsing.

Don't expect to find a particular word and don't try to read it all at once. Instead, keep it by the bedside or in the car and read a page or two when you have a spare minute.

It's a bit dated, and some entries are obscure or unfamiliar, but Harry Potter fans will delight to find such words as basilisk and mandrake.

There are many such non-academic books on the stories of word origins, but this one among many has somehow captured my preference. The balance of etymology and history provides many delightful little ah-hah! moments of new insights and connections.

This is best illustrated by example:

I just now randomly opened the book to page 58, where we learn that the bird 'canary' is indeed from the Canary Islands, which are so named in Pliny the Elder's account of the journey, in 40 B.C., of Juba, the Mauritanian chief, through the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar Strait) to an island overrun with dogs which he named Canaria, Latin for 'Island of Dogs' (canine).

In the next 3 pages one learns (in much greater detail):

The Latin 'cancelli', for lattice, gave us the word 'cancel' from the appearance of hash marks in the days before erasers (whose usage gave us the noun 'rubber').

Roman candidates for public office wore white as a sign of purity (like brides today), so 'candidatus' (clothed in white) gave us candidate, candor, and candid.

When Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba, the people explained they were Canibales, a dialectal pronunciation of Caribes, from which we get cannibal and Caribbean.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 27, 2005
Format: Paperback
I have always loved to explore word origins, which is why I love this book. While many of the origins are what you would expect, there are a few gems whose origin is most unusual. The word origins also show what a mongrel the English language is, with words developed using input from every corner of Europe, the Islamic areas of North Africa and Asia and even as far away as British India. It was fascinating to learn how so many of our words had a different form in one language and was altered two or three times before reaching the final form that we know today. I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in word origins or who just wants to learn something while doing some recreational reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Bryan Byrd on November 4, 2012
Format: Paperback
Along with dictionaries and encyclopedias, the internet is making short work of classic reference works such as this one by Charles Funk, author of the similarly themed Horsefeathers and A Hog on Ice. In a world of Kindles and Nooks, physical books of all sorts are on the defensive, and even a Luddite like me reaches for a mouse first anymore rather than a dusty old tome when I'm looking for facts, definitions, or information on any other aspect of language, including word origins. As I am still quite interested in those kinds of things, old habits persuaded me to pick up THEREBY HANGS A TALE at a recent library sale, as I remembered enjoying a section of Mr. Funk's other classic work on curious phrase origins, A HOG ON ICE. This book follows much the same format as I remember HOG did - a paragraph or two which explains how a particular word evolved into the meaning we associate with it today. Such as 'academy', derived from Academus, in whose garden spot Plato frequented and taught.

What follows is, as Dr. Funk describes it in his forward, a collection of accumulated material from thirty years prior to publishing A TALE, which arrived on shelves back in 1950. Even aside from the interest generated by the word origins is that some of the words Dr. Funk describes have slightly altered in meaning even between 1950 and 2012. It's nothing drastic, but a good example of how language continues to evolve.

One of the charms of reference books is the ability to take a leisurely look around once you've got the information you were looking for in the first place.
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Format: Paperback
Especially if you enjoy our rich English language. Very useful if someone in your circle speaks English as a second language.
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By Jennifer Van Deven on April 21, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I gave this book to my dad many moons ago and obtained his others because I enjoy word origins. All of his books are similar. I have not read all of them entirely. I use them all as reference and sometimes just read pages here and there for the fun.
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