Thursday, May 7, 2015

Book Review: The Secret Life of Words

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
Henry Hitchings

This is a book for word mavens, of whom I am one. Does it make your day to discover that the Russian word for a train station (vokzal) derives from a specific train station (Vauxhall) in South London? Do you cherish the knowledge that "robot" is etymologically related to the German "arbeit"? Then The Secret Life of Words is for you. 

TSLoW is structured as a chrono-thematic journey through English. It purports to demonstrate how English acquired vocabulary from other language in response to specific circumstances, and to be fair it does some of that. 

But, really, it's all about the words. 

TSLoW  is chatty. It's digressive. It's full of largely useless but enjoyable facts--no human being could possibly remember any appreciable fraction of the etymologies herein. Naturally, I liked it a lot.

Good crossover reads include John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue and Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. The first is more learned, but very readable; it's a bit of a favorite of mine. The second is somewhat unreliable--take it with a pinch of salt--but entertaining.


  1. I suppose I would really like this book. Being away from the English speaking world affords a perspective on the language. I see borrowed words in Japan regularly, and the meanings are very very different from the original. "Manshon" (mansion) refers to a condominium apartment. "Arubaito" (arbeit - as you mention above) is a part time job with no benefits.

    The perspective also shines light on my own language. It makes you curious as to where the words originated, why we say them. My kids, who are bilingual, but stronger in Japanese, often ask why we have 2,3,4 different ways of saying something in English. It's hard to answer. It makes you think.

    1. I think you would like it very much. I remember your pleasure many years ago in pointing out the connection between "tetsubishi" (caltrop == "four diamonds") and "Mitsubishi" (looking at the logo). And, in fact, "arubaito" in the sense you mention makes an appearance on page 170.

      It will also provide a certain amount of ammunition for answering your daughters. Namely, that because English has so many borrowings, what we have is 2, 3, 4 ... n different ways of saying almost but not quite the same thing. Think of the difference between "guarantee" and "waranty", for example--which are the same word, borrowed twice from French at different times. Or the difference between the Old English "graveyard" and the "cemetery" (borrowed from Greek in the 19th century). And someone who is a "nitwit" (from Dutch, the book informs me) is quite different from an "idiot" (which I think is Greek) or a "knucklehead"--though it'd take me a couple paragraphs to explain exactly how.