The next several posts to this blog will be brief catch-ups on all the reading I’ve done (and am doing). I’ll start with a little something from my favorite linguist, David Crystal: The Story of English in 100 Words (2011).
Every fall, I teach a course on the history of the English language, and I’m always looking for new books. I’ve worked through nearly ten by Crystal (he’s the most prolific linguist I know of, and also the most fun), and this is the best brief intro to 1600 years of language change.
Modeled after Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series History of the World in 100 Objects, Crystal’s book takes the reader from a 5th century runic inscription on a deer bone to our current century’s twittersphere. Along the way, Crystal highlights words like fopdoodle, shibboleth, and egg to get at issues of dialect, linguistic snobbery, and a shifting lexicon that borrows willy-nilly from languages across the globe, makes up words out of nonsense syllables, and allows perfectly good ones to drop out of usage. He also connects the words to important influences: not just to literary works (KJV Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Beowulf, etc.), but also to historical events and eras like the Norman Conquest, Caxton’s printing press, the age of exploration, and international trade and travel.
I found myself marking words I wanted to bring back into popular usage: bodgery (botched work), baggagery (worthless rabble), hangworthy [no need to gloss this word], and fubbery (cheating). Read this book with a pen and notepad handy; you too might be inspired to resuscitate a few lost words.
I’ve a couple of Crystal’s reference books which I’ve mostly dipped into rather than read through, but this title (which I had noticed in bookshops) looks one that I can easily read cover to cover. There are no end of these wonderful books about etymology being published these days so one’s spoiled for choice!
Crystal is always reassuring about language change. He makes me feel much better about tweeting, and he certainly has the long view of the unending process. My students nearly all become fans after a semester with him.
Our kind of academic, I gather! He certainly is good at communication and the public perception of his discipline, an excellent trait for one whose speciality is language.