Upfront: We like words. We think etymology is fun. We consider Bill Bryson something of a hero, and Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origins of English Words is a staple at Biblioklept World Headquarters. We can spend hours at a site like Luciferous Logolepsy, and it’s not just obscure words we love–we’re also likely to pore over nerdy linguistic battles at Word Court for far too long. Unlike most people, we think puns are a sophisticated way to crack a joke. If any of these proclivities seem to align with your own tastes, you’ll likely enjoy Henry Hitchings’s history of the English language The Secret Life of Words as much as we did.
Hitchings organizes his book into sixteen parts, each named for a word that will inform the narrative thrust of that particular thrust. After opening, appropriately with “Ensemble” as an introductory overture, Hitchings uses “Invade” as his key term for chapter two. Throughout the book invade comes not only to signify an obvious entry point for a history of English (the Norman conquest of England in 1066), but also a general trend of just how ubiquitous (and perhaps invasive) English has become. Hitchings’s take veers toward post-colonialist theory, with a heavy dash of historical-materialist tendencies to boot. In a chapter titled “Angst,” he comments that “it is impossible not to see the long shadows cast by Marx, Freud and Einstein, the architects of socialism, psychoanalysis, and the atomic age.” Darwin and the American Transcendentalists (whom Hitchings saliently credits with greatly expanding the English language) also figure heavily in his readings. Hitchings is not all Frederic Jameson and post-colonialism, of course (not that we mind that sort of thing around these parts), but his liberal readings on contemporary linguistic issues like the place of Black Vernacular English in modern America are welcome and refreshing. Still, Hitchings’s Secret Life is a balanced affair, drawing not just on readings of master artists in the English language, like Shakespeare, Joyce, and the Romantic poets, but also on a seemingly-endless bibliography of dictionaries, almanacs, histories, and etymologies (Hitchings’s chapter notes, bibliography, and index run to nearly a 100 pages).
At the heart of it all, of course, are words. Each page brims with little etymological factoids. Hitchings clues us in to the fact that venison once simply referred to all hunted game, not just deer. He avers that “It is quite widely known that poppycock comes from the Dutch for ‘doll’s shit.’” (Is it really that widely known? We had no idea). He tells us that while molasses derives from the Portuguese word melaços, we don’t really know where we get the term rum from (some will be content to remain drinking in ignorance, of course). We had no idea that the game chess gets its name via the Persian word for king, shah. And while Hitchings lards his book with plenty of fun little details, they all serve (and serve well) his greater narrative; namely, a history of the English language. While this book isn’t for everyone, we certainly enjoyed it and have already given it a little spot on a shelf of books we return to often, books in English about English. Fun stuff.
The Secret Life of Words is now available in paperback from Picador.
Conservative Republicans seem to be having an awfully tough time with their vocabulary lately. They keep misusing words, poor old dears. In particular, these confused politicos keep using words that have traditionally had a positive connotation in a pejorative sense. Therefore, we present a little gloss that might help them with their sorry diction.
“c.1375, from O.Fr. liberal “befitting free men, noble, generous,” from L. liberalis “noble, generous,” lit. “pertaining to a free man,” from liber “free,” from PIE base *leudheros (cf. Gk. eleutheros “free”), probably originally ‘belonging to the people’” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
From the Indo-European root “leudh,” meaning “grow, rise,” as in progressive (Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words)
“1823, from Fr. élite “selection, choice,” from O.Fr. fem. pp. of elire, elisre “pick out, choose,” from L. eligere “choose” (see election). Borrowed in M.E. as “chosen person,” esp. a bishop-elect, died out c.1450, re-introduced by Byron’s “Don Juan.” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
“1a singular or plural in construction : the choice part. 1b singular or plural in construction : the best of a class” (Merriam-Webster)
“1867, “calf or yearling found without an owner’s brand,” in allusion to Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), Texas cattle owner who was negligent in branding his calves. Sense of “individualist, unconventional person” is first recorded 1886, via notion of ‘masterless.’” (Online Etymological Dictionary)
Samuel A. Maverick refused to brand his cattle, ostensibly claiming that the practice was cruel. However, by not branding his cattle, he was able to claim any stray cows as his own property. What a devious genius! How’s that for laissez-fair?
Clearly, a maverick would never let himself be branded with someone else’s label. He’d cut his own path, forge his own trail, create his own hackneyed metaphor, and not, f’r’instance, vote with the President 95% of the time.
“Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” ( Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary)
“From the Indo-European root “(s)kamb: bend, change; exchange, barter . . . Fr, change, exchange. Gc, change, changeable, unchanging, etc. . . . This root is related to camp, campus, campaign, etc.” (Joseph T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words)
Synonyms for “change” include: modification, variation, transformation, revolution, conversion, adjustment, amendment, difference, and alteration.
When used in politics, the word connotes a dramatic shift in ideology from the previous regime to its successors (e.g. “The idea that a new set of Republicans would be a change from the old set was both a paradox and a misuse of language”)
From the OED:
b. attrib. and Comb., as hogmanay cake, day, night, concert, song, etc.