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David Crystal


Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Crystal finds that there are two main ways of telling the story of English. The usual approach is to present a historical overview, starting with Old English and tracing the development of the language through Middle English, Early Modern English, to Modern English. This provides relatively little information about vocabulary. The alternative is to concentrate on words—their origins and uses.

In this book he combines these approaches, to give a series of snapshots of the development of English. History is central to the discussion, but Crystal is flexible and doesn't hesitate to digress from the principal word that is being discussed to include other material related to it. The tone throughout is chatty and informal.

The words are arranged in roughly chronological order, starting with the first recorded English word (5th century), which is 'roe' (as in roe deer). The last word is 'twittersphere'. In between we get an idiosyncratic but undoubtedly fascinating range of entries.

One or two words that are not usable in polite society are included, although it is remarkable how these things change over time. Thus, 'arse' was not impolite when it first appeared in the 11th century; it then referred to an animal's rump and was included in glossaries, poems, and scholarly works; in the 16th century it even figured in a sermon. 'Bloody' has evolved in a rather similar way.

The changes that words have undergone are endlessly intriguing. For example, 'grammar' elicits feelings of boredom in most people today, but at its origin in the 14th century it was associated with the supernatural and occult, and it turns out to be related etymologically to 'glamour'.

Often, a source word develops meanings that are so different from each other that we don't suspect that they have a common origin. Who would ever guess that there's a common origin for salary, sausage, and salad? And who would ever have predicted that grammar would one day give birth to such a flamboyant and publicity-seeking child as glamour? Grammar hasn't yet achieved such a vivid popular presence—but I live in hope.
All the entries are quite short and easy to read quickly, but Crystal packs a lot of information into their small compass. This isn't anything like a full history of English, but it's likely to whet the appetite for more.


%T The Story of English in 100 Words
%A David Crystal
%I Profile Books
%C London
%D 2011
%K language
%O Kindle edition: downloaded from, 2017

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