Review: The Story of English in 100 Words

The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal


Despite my family’s best efforts and how much shouting I do about my mother tongue, I do not speak French fluently. I was a very cruel and contrary child, and the pitiful rebellions of my youth (“I’m going to learn Gaelic!” is, hilariously, an actual tantrum from my past) deprived me of, according to modern linguistics, my prime secondary language learning years. But, nonetheless, growing up around French (and my mother’s Britishisms) has flavored my command of English.

Case in point: appellate. Last month, I was putting together my usual week in review post and wanted to compliment a tumblr user’s name. “The wonderfully named?” No, that wouldn’t do. Named was simply too plain to reflect the wordplay at play here. Appellate was the first verb that came to my hand, but “appellated” generated the dreaded red squiggly lines. Confused, I did some research and realized, as I said on Twitter, that English had forgotten to do its French homework. Appeler is the French verb for “to call”; it’s how you introduce yourself. You don’t say “Mon nom est Clare” (My name is Clare), you say, “J m’appelle Clare” (I am called Clare). It’s derived from the Latin appellō, which means both “to call” and “to address.” While the French derivative uses it to talk names, the English derivative—to appeal—uses it in a sense of addressing and pleading, often in a legal sense. (Thus appellate court.) But the French meaning survives in English as appellation, which designates a name or a title. Thus my desire to use it as a verb, because it connotes both. But the verb never caught in English, which makes you wonder how you’re supposed to get an appellation in the first place.

Having done all that research, I went ahead and did whatever I wanted, because English is a French-flavored smoothie of a malleable language. And that’s what David Crystal, an English linguist who has been knighted for his service to the English language, is trying to track with The Story of English in 100 Words.

The history of English can be boiled down to a very simple story: Britain boasts some native languages that are influenced by a series of invaders, the Anglo-Saxons and the French chief among them. It then goes out into the wider world with colonialism and immediately starts playing Katamari Damacy with every language it encounters. Without any central agency to police the language (like Cardinal Richelieu’s L’Académie française, which publishes the official dictionary of the French language), it becomes the strange, flexible language that you and I, dear reader, communicate to each other with.

While Crystal obviously touches on this history, what he’s far more interested in is how vocabulary tells the story of both how English evolved and how English speakers from all over the world have used their words throughout history. Each entry (Crystal calls them chapters, but that’s a bit of a stretch) nominally focuses on a single word, but it’s never that simple, is it? One of the first entries focuses on “loaf” (as in bread) and its centrality in Old English as hlaf. Bread was so central to the culture that the head of the household was a hlaf-weard—a bread warden. And this is where we get the word “lord,” after English speakers ditched the f sound in the fourteenth century. What a wonderful birth for a word many people use to refer to God.

Little moments like these fill The Story of English in 100 Words. Legal doublets, like “wrack and ruin,” combine words derived from two different languages in order to ensure that everybody’s on the same page. Reduplication is when you create phrases like “dilly dally,” simply swapping a vowel and then doubling it. Dudine is an archaic feminine of dude, and one that I think we should all just start using again.

But what’s most interesting is how casual and haphazard the creation of English is. Crystal ends with Twittersphere, a word that would have meant absolutely nothing in 2005. (In other news: Twitter is eight years old and that freaks me out.) The information age has hastened the pace of word creation, but the same methods have always applied, from the adoption of people’s names in science leading to Alzheimer’s as a term to the adoption of a Russian word to coin robot to the rampant adoption of brand names to refer to generic items (like band-aids or escalators). Words come to English through abbreviation, through adoption, and through sheer misunderstanding. And, through some sheer will, it all works.

I suppose that’s the magic of language, really–that I can convey any of my thoughts to you at all, from the basic (I like yelling about being French!) to the abstract (I feel connected to history when I research etymology!). Obviously, this sort of thing happens in every language. The immortals of L’Académie française (that is one hundred percent what the members of the Academy are called; oh, Marianne) can frown on loanwords all they want, but they’re still going to get into the language. But The Story of English in 100 Words reminds us of English’s awkward, haphazard, and frankly astonishing development—and that we are always right in the middle of it.

Bottom line: The Story of English in 100 Words is a crash course in the story of English as seen through its vocabulary and what it says about English speakers. Haphazard, flexible, and always interesting. Great fun for the linguistically inclined.

I rented this book from the public library.

4 thoughts on “Review: The Story of English in 100 Words

  1. The concept sounds somewhat similar to The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings, which was a pleasure to read. More books of this sort, I say! I love David Crystal – we have a bunch of his books at my library and I keep wanting to bring them all home.

  2. The haphazard nature of word creation is something that’s always interested me — it’s just the thing that people say often enough that it sticks. I remember wondering, after 9/11, what the name for the disaster was going to end up being, and thinking about the way we colloquialize other major events (usually it’s the name of the place where the disaster occurred, it seems like?).

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