The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
By Henry Hitchings
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
“I have never read a book that so perfectly reveals” the process by which the English language formed, said Katherine Powers in The Boston Globe. As French-speaking Normans intermingled with Saxons of Germanic origin, they forged a tongue with a unique “spirit of acquisitiveness,” which would grow over the centuries by incorporating words from still other languages. Hitchings expertly unfolds how it happened, but his true aim is to “show how our present outlook is informed by the history squirreled away in the words we use.”
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue
By John McWhorter
This thought-provoking take on the evolution of English takes on that standard “dogma” about Normans and Saxons, said Christine Kenneally in Slate.com. McWhorter suggests that an importantly early influence came from the original inhabitants of the English Isles, the Celts, who “co-existed for hundreds of years” alongside English speakers. McWhorter insists that the vocabulary of English is not what “really makes it unique.” It’s the grammar—which has a lot in common with Welsh.
Reading the OED
By Ammon Shea
“This is the Super Size Me of lexicography,” said Nicholson Baker in The New York Times. In the spirit of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, Ammon Shea undertook a seemingly impossible task: To read all 300,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary in a single year. As fascinating as the forgotten words he digs up—such as “prend” or “kankedort”—is the physical toll the endeavor takes on him. Increasingly anti-social and ill-groomed, Shea seems a sort of mad prophet, “singing incomprehensible sounds in a language that turns out to be our own.”
By Roy Blount Jr.
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25)
The “immensely likable” Roy Blount Jr. just happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of English, said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. Whether discussing word origins or the proper deployment of punctuation, this erudite Southerner “nicely balances real learning and easygoing charm.” This book’s real contribution, though, is its often-poetic appreciation of how words’ sounds can suit their meanings. We can all agree that “grunt” sounds like what it means. But have you ever noticed that “pizazz” does, too?