Excavating our language…a review of David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words.

crystalI have finished reading David Crystal’s The Story of English in 100 Words, hooray! It’s been rather a disjointed read, with me picking it up and reading a few sections at odd times over the last few months; but that doesn’t really matter with this book as it is very much a compendium of words and their etymology and evolution.

I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. As I mentioned in a post many months ago, I have only ever been a student of English Literature and never English Language and so, for me, this book has been my first real foray into the realms of linguistic analysis. I have had fun. I’m not sure, however, if I would have enjoyed this book as much were it not for David Crystal’s simple and straightforward style of writing. I imagine that, if he wanted to, Mr Crystal is infinitely capable of writing a great, dense and humongous tome about the evolution of the English language (in fact, he probably has), but that would not be the book for me – or, indeed, for most casual readers. The Story of English in 100 Words, however, I would recommend to anyone. It’s easy-reading, simple, uncomplicated, informative and entertaining.

words 2I have already bought a copy of this book for my Mum and can readily foresee me recommending it to other family members and friends. For those of you who’d like a little more detail on the format the book takes…well, the title tells all really. In one hundred sections or chapters, Crystal explores the evolution of the language through one hundred varying and diverse words. From chapter sixteen and the word ‘swain’ to chapter ninety-seven and the word ‘muggle’ – there are a vast range of linguistic treasures to explore.

I’ve already mentioned that this book is easy-to-read and simply but effectively written, it is also not very long. I suppose you might imagine that a book exploring one hundred words might be rather hefty. It is not, in fact, Crystal fits a great deal of information into just over 200 pages.

english-wordsI think this book is ideal for those of us who find language interesting as an entity in itself, but one of the great surprises is how interesting it is to explore the ‘journey’ of each word from its first usage right up to its present day meaning. It’s also surprising how old some of our words really are. Words which I had considered fairly modern introductions to the language frequently turned out to have been coined by Shakespeare, the Georgians and those canny vikings and celts have much to answer for too. I am especially fond of a new word I encountered, the Anglo-Saxon word ‘medu-wang’, meaning ‘the land surrounding the mead hall’ – it seems many Anglo-Saxon places, objects and experiences were described chiefly by their association to mead!

&2As I’m sure you’ve come to realise, I would recommend this book to most readers. It’s also a good read in the sense that it’s easy to pick up in those odd moments where you don’t have time to get engrossed in a weighty narrative, you can simply read a section (usually a couple of pages) and put it down to return to at the next opportune moment.

As for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I’m still very much mid-read. Strangely I’m finding it a little more heavy-going than I’d anticipated, having not, perhaps, allowed for its Victorian authoress’ musings and sermons!

Until next time, I’ll be reading, thinking and, of course, drinking tea.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, David Crystal, Non-fiction, Reading

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