Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

From The New Yorker
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 focussed 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, but the absence of a strong over-all argument deprives his account of momentum.
Copyright ©2008 Click here to subscribe to The New Yorker --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Booklist
What Hitchings shows us is that the history of our vocabulary is the history of who we really are. Playing up the “acquisitiveness of English,” which has proved hospitable to words from more than 350 other languages, his book has a wide sweep, from pre-Roman Britain to online communities. Each chapter tends to address a particular influx of words, whether rooted in invasion and conquest or in the innovative use of the language by gifted writers. A chapter called “Angst” not only covers the twentieth century’s contribution to the vocabulary via the military, advertising, technology, and the business world, it also incorporates, in digressive but entertaining fashion, the history of coffee, a caustic evisceration of “management speak,” and an explanation of why purists are so resistant to new words. Ever ready with an apt quote, Hitchings makes a delightful and knowledgeable guide, privy to many fascinating facts about the language—those averse to the increasing power of technophiles are given a handful of pithy put-downs, including dot snots and entrepenerds. A well-researched, fluidly written book that wears its scholarship lightly. --Joanne Wilkinson --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.