Open the cover on The Secret Life of Words.

Posted on July 24, 2010


Ever wondered about the origins of our words? Just what is it that makes English such an adaptable, fluid language? Well, wonder no more, because, thankfully, Henry Hitchings has written a wonderful volume on just this very subject, delving into the rich history of the English language.

This is by no means the first book to look at the etymology of English, but it is certainly one of the most engaging. Hitchings employs a colloquial, light-hearted tone and it is difficult not to be carried away by his passion and enthusiasm for his subject. There is no condescension, no drone of some insufferable academic at the dinner party from hell, just a series of delights as each sweet discovery is unwrapped for you to savour. For instance, did you know that the English word chocolate comes from the Aztec word xocoatl, meaning “bitter water”, or that word English itself is derived from Anglisc, a dialect used by the Angles? Interestingly, the English were once known as Angelcynn, “the race of Angels”.

The Secret Life of Words traces the borrowings and incursions of words from other languages, and how the melting-pot of cultures in England helped to create one of the most dynamic languages on the planet. From Jutes, Angles, Saxons, Romans, Normans and Norse invaders, to Arabic, Persian and even Native American borrowings, Hitchings covers each with anecdotes and insights that leave you pondering on the historical events and simple flukes that have altered our language indefinitely.


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