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The Secret Life of Words

How English Became English

Henry Hitchings


The Secret Life of Words Download image

ISBN10: 0312428561
ISBN13: 9780312428563

Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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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.


Praise for The Secret Life of Words

"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 and culture of English-speaking people and finds the connections between what was going on in the world and the words that English borrowed from other languages . . . For a word nerd like me, the fun of Hitchings' book is in finding out more about the origins of words. I marked pages with sticky notes so I could remember them. ‘Hubbub,' a word for an uproar, comes from a Gaelic term associated with the wail of bagpipes. The South African language Xhosa contributed 'homeboy,' a loan translation of 'umkhaya.' The word 'cliche' was a printers' term for a plate used in type foundries. 'An expression repeated too often bears the shallow mechanical imprint of the printing plate: You can hear in the word the wet click of a machine and then a metallic emptiness,' Hitchings writes. I love the sound of Yiddish words, and Hitchings mentions a few colorful ones: 'nebbish' (a dolt who fares poorly in the world), 'schmaltz' (corny sentiment) and 'nudnik' (a nag or a bore). [I must mention my all-time favorite Yiddish word 'bubkes,' which means 'nothing.'] An index of words and terms in the back of Hitchings' book could keep you busy for hours as you look up one after another. By the way, 'grammar' and 'glamour' are etymologically related. Hitchings' writing style is easy and lively."—Pam Nelson, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

"No secret lives here, but never mind: This rich and readable history is dense with telling details. Hitchings looks at English through the lens of successive cultural clashes, documenting the marks left through the centuries, from Celtic and Roman influences to Arabic, Indian, Yiddish and everything in between."—Jan Freeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Language is about more than communication. Its history weaves into itself the stories of empire and politics, culture, economics, fashion, horticulture and even cooking. Mutating along with our evolving lifestyles, it vibrates with the echoes of all our society has ever been. As Henry Hitchings powerfully demonstrates in his astonishing new survey, it 'enables an archaeology of human experience' . . . Rather than using history to explain language, Hitchings's sounder approach is to pick words apart to get at their origins. In so doing, he carries us into the heart of changing societies, shining a light into hidden corners, making the familiar unfamiliar and the apparently prosaic flash with significance. We learn that the vocabulary of farming comes in large measure from Norse. Old English contains more than 30 words for 'warrior', reflecting the pugnacity of Anglo-Saxon culture; Viking wanderlust is revealed in a profusion of seafaring terms, storm, sail, oar and mast among them. The entire vocabulary of castle-building is Norman . . . Hitchings examines the linguistic legacy of the Crusades and the influence of Arabic on the English of the 14th century. He charts the effect of Caxton's printing, the sensitivity of Chaucer to the suggestiveness of a language in flux (so that his fastidious Prioress speaks French while the ribald Miller is sketched in blunt Saxon monosyllables). We are shown how English responded to the broadening geographical horizons of the 16th century and how the explosion of new words in the 17th century reflected its massive intellectual and social upheaval, racing to catch up with a flood of new 'things' and concepts . . . The rapid addition of new words has, since the Tudors, engendered strenuous debate about the need to maintain the purity of language in the interests of national identity. But Hitchings shows that, in part, the lasting vigour of English is due to its diversity—to the absence of patriotic circumscription. It not only mirrors new experiences but can be an active weapon in ideological battle—think only of the Americanisation of standard English after the Declaration of Independence: a blizzard of slogans and respellings that trumpeted the self-determination of a nation reborn . . . Every page of The Secret Life of Words is stuffed with rewards . . . His book is painstakingly detailed, closely argued and suffused with a contagious enthusiasm for the secrets woven into the fabric of our words."—Kate Colquhoun, The Telegraph (U.K.)

"Hitchings, who wrote earlier about Samuel Johnson's dictionary, again displays his astonishing knowledge of the English language's myriad roots. English has been and no doubt always will be a salmagundi, the author declares, blending words from many other tongues into one splendid, ever-changing linguistic dish. It's vocabulary that interests him here—grammar is far more resistant to change, he notes—and after some factual table-setting (approximately 350 languages have contributed to English) he serves his main courses one century at a time. Hitchings effortlessly blends world history with linguistic history, helping us see that we appropriate words for numerous reasons: trade, conquest, fashion, food, art and so on. The Anglo-Saxons, we learn, had more than 30 words for warrior. From Arabic we gained words for alchemy that then migrated into math and science, such as zero and cipher. Chaucer, the author writes, was 'a literary magpie' who liberated the language. The rise of the printing press ignited another vocabulary explosion. In the 16th century, English conflicts with Spain brought an influx of Spanish words, among them armada, hammock and mosquito. Shakespeare is the first known user of some 1,700 words. From the New World came potato and tobacco; Capt. John Smith was the first to use adrift and roomy. Greek, avers Hitchings, has remained a source of high-culture (even highfalutin) words like deipnosophist and pathos. Many French words deal with culture, leisure and food (no surprise there); soiree first appeared in the fiction of Fanny Burney. The British occupation of India brought the words teapot, curry and pajamas. In later days, advertising, mass media, the Internet and the 'global village' have all accelerated the growth and spread of English. Hitchings notes in several places the impossibility and undesirability of attempting to close and bar the doors of this eternally flexible and omnivorous tongue. Learned, wise and educative."—Kirkus Reviews

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