The Secret Life of Words — Henry Hitchings

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.

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