THE STORY OF ENGLISH IN 100 WORDS

crystal--david-credit-crystDAVID CRYSTAL

ENGLISH is a delightful nonfiction. Crystal examines 1oo words but brings in hundreds of other words that relate to that specific word. Crystal’s text begins with what may be the first written word in our language, raihan, the word for roe-deer, and ends with something awfully recent, twittersphere. “English is also a playful and innovative language, whose speakers love to use their imaginations in creating new vocabulary, and who are prepared to depart from tradition when coining words. “Crystal thinks every word has a story to tell, even the ones as commonplace as “and.””Poor little words like ‘and,’ and ‘the,’ and ‘of’ … they don’t get any press at all,” Crystal tells NPR’s Neal Conan. “And this is a great shame, because without them, we have no syntax. We have no grammar. The whole language falls apart.”

Differences in British English and American English are considered (eg, aerial/antenna, petrol/gas), the Old Norse legacy (eg in words such as skirt, yard and kirk), posh and common words (lavatory vs toilet) and the changing fortunes and meanings of individual words (eg text).  He examines phrases: “an absence of waiters,  a rash of dermatologists, a clutch of car mechanics, a bout of estimates, a lot of auctioneers, a mass of priests, a whored of prostitutes.” Interestingly there is a difference between acronyms (eg OPEC) “string of letters pronounceable as a word and initialisms where individual letters are pronounced separately (eg CBC). The book is full of fascinating factoids.

“English has been this vacuum cleaner of a language, because of its history meeting up with the Romans and then the Danes, the Vikings and then the French and then the Renaissance with all the Latin and Greek and Hebrew in the background. Every language that English has come into contact with, it’s pinched some of the words — thousands and thousands of words in many cases. And something like 600 languages have loaned or given words to English over the past 1,000 years.”

“One of the reasons why I love the word OK is that it has had so many guesses for its origins. I stopped counting at 50. I think we do now know where OK comes from. There was a great American lexicographer called Allen Walker Read, who many years ago did a huge study and found out that the word ‘OK’ first appeared in the 1830s … in a newspaper in Boston. Because at the time, there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters. And OK came, at that point in time, from ‘oll korrect,’ … O-L-L for ‘all,’ and K-O-R-R-E-C-T for ‘correct.’ Now, there were dozens of other abbreviations in the Boston newspaper at the time, and most of them had disappeared. But this one didn’t. OK stayed. And the reason is it had a completely fresh boost of life the following year, when it began to be used as a slogan in the U.S. elections in 1840.”


“I’d love to put in … the latest word in the English language. And, of course, there’s no such thing because as soon as you put that in a book, it’s out of date because wordsanother word is going to come into use tomorrow. So I thought, what is a word that will point us towards the future? …”So I focused on Twitter, which, at the time I was writing, was … still developing as one of the latest and coolest developments online. And I suddenly realized there was a huge family of words out there that Twitter had begun to generate. I’ve collected, over the months since it started, something like a thousand words, all based on Twitter in some shape or form.

“So you’ve got … not just Twittering and tweeting and so on. You’ve got the Twittersphere, which is the word I use in the book to capture all this. You’ve got, for people who tweet too much, they’re suffering from Twittoria … We’ve got a Twidiction here. You can look all these things up in the Twictionary.”

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