Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Book 45 of 2013: The Secret Life of English - How English Became English by Henry Hitchings

I have a small collection of books about the English language and linguistics in general. I never used to read that many non-fiction books, not since early secondary school at least when I used to get through two Horrible Histories books a night, but since discovering that language and its development fascinates me I can happily read loads of these books.

The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings is one of those books. I picked it up for a pittance in a charity shop way back when I was studying my first OU linguistics course. I dipped into it a couple of times to use in assignments but never actually sat down to read it properly though until this summer.


This book is structured into chapters, titled after a particular word, which then goes on to explain what influenced that word's entrance into the English language along with other words which came about through the same events. It's largely a book about historical events (such as British colonisation) which brought new words into the English language.

I did find this book really interesting. But I can't help but think that it would have worked better if I had dipped into it rather than reading it all in one go. It wasn't really the sort of book that you could properly read from beginning to end. It took me quite a while to get through and I suspect that this was why.

It would have been interesting to learn more about the twenty-first century's contributions to English as most of the book focused on the far past. I suppose that some of the words that were featured took a long time to become properly established in the language so some words which have entered the language recently haven't actually been in use for that long and so might fade away with time.

The very last bit of the book was about more recent words to enter the English language, but I didn't actually recognise many of them. I suppose either they're taking their time to become established, or at the time of writing they seemed like they were going to become new words, but didn't. I guess it's hard to predict which words will stick around and which will disappear into obscurity.

There were notes all the way through the book which you had to look up at the very end. I think notes are always a tricky thing to include in books. There never seems to be a great place to put them. If they're at the end of the book they annoy me because I have to keep flipping from the page I'm on to the end, if they're at the end of the chapter then ditto. What I'd like is for the substantial comments to be down at the bottom of the page that the note is listed on, then any bibliographic information comes at the end of a chapter or at the end of the book (perhaps under headings to show which chapter/page it was referenced on). Of course that probably wouldn't satisfy everyone and despite keeping me happy, I'm sure it would annoy countless other readers.

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