Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Secret Life of Words -- How English Became English by Henry Hitchings - John Murray; $65.00 in hard covers.
Reviewed by guest reviewer Gordon McLauchlan.

English speakers swoop on the words of any language, pick them up and if they find them useful consume them, like pigeons in the park. And that has been going on for a long, long time. In his latest book, Henry Hitchings quotes a philologist James Harris as saying English speakers have been remarkable borrowers and that is why the language may be “deficient in regularity” but “what we want in elegance we gain in copiousness.”

Nothing new about that but Hitchings provides a thorough and interesting account of how that copiousness came about: when and where the words came from and what historical events brought them to the attention of the English speakers. He notes : “About half of English words have been borrowed, and many of the other half are compounds or mutations of earlier borrowings.”
What distinguishes this book from the many on the same subject that have preceded it is the author’s deep familiarity with general and social history.
There are some surprises in here: “A third of all the English words with Latin etymologies were first used in the 140 years between the arrival of printing and the death of Shakespeare”. Who could have guessed that?

No comments: