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How English Became English

By Henry Hitchings

Pub Date: Sept. 23rd, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-374-25410-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Hitchings, who wrote earlier about Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (Defining the World, 2005), again displays his astonishing knowledge of the English language’s myriad roots.

English has been and no doubt always will be a salmagundi, the author declares, blending words from many other tongues into one splendid, ever-changing linguistic dish. It’s vocabulary that interests him here—grammar is far more resistant to change, he notes—and after some factual table-setting (approximately 350 languages have contributed to English) he serves his main courses one century at a time. Hitchings effortlessly blends world history with linguistic history, helping us see that we appropriate words for numerous reasons: trade, conquest, fashion, food, art and so on. The Anglo-Saxons, we learn, had more than 30 words for warrior. From Arabic we gained words for alchemy that then migrated into math and science, such as zero and cipher. Chaucer, the author writes, was “a literary magpie” who liberated the language. The rise of the printing press ignited another vocabulary explosion. In the 16th century, English conflicts with Spain brought an influx of Spanish words, among them armada, hammock and mosquito. Shakespeare is the first known user of some 1,700 words. From the New World came potato and tobacco; Capt. John Smith was the first to use adrift and roomy. Greek, avers Hitchings, has remained a source of high-culture (even highfalutin) words like deipnosophist and pathos. Many French words deal with culture, leisure and food (no surprise there); soirée first appeared in the fiction of Fanny Burney. The British occupation of India brought the words teapot, curry and pajamas. In later days, advertising, mass media, the Internet and the “global village” have all accelerated the growth and spread of English. Hitchings notes in several places the impossibility and undesirability of attempting to close and bar the doors of this eternally flexible and omnivorous tongue.

Learned, wise and educative, though a bit weighty for the average nightstand.