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The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English [Paperback]

Henry Hitchings
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 April 2009

Communication is essential to our lives, but how often do we stop to think about where the words we use have come from? Have you ever thought about which words in English have been borrowed from Arabic, French or Dutch? Try admiral, landscape and marmalade just for starters. The Secret Life of Words is a wide-ranging account not only of the history of English, but also of how words witness history, reflect social change and remind us of our turbulent past. Henry Hitchings delves into our promiscuous language and reveals how and why it has absorbed words from more than 350 other languages many originating from the most unlikely of places, such as shampoo from Hindi and kiosk from Turkish.

From the Norman Conquest to the present day, Hitchings narrates the story of English as an archive of our human experience and uncovers the secrets behind everyday words. This is a celebration of our language; after reading it, you will never again take the words we use for granted.



Product details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: John Murray (2 April 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0719564557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0719564550
  • Product Dimensions: 2.9 x 12.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 35,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'Hitchings's excavations are a treat. He presents the best gleanings of academia in a winning, conversational style. Almost every spadeful yields an etymological nugget . . . elegantly and entertainingly written' (Financial Times)

'[It] disentangles an intriguing narrative from a mass of information, revealing the distinct cultural climates that produced certain words and bearing witness to an increasing global language, always morphing into something new' (Guardian)

'A fascinating exploration of the rich borrowings, exchanges and couplings of the language' (Ben Macintyre, The Times)

'Hitchings delves into words, resurfacing with their surprising origins' (The Times)

'It is a book that brings etymology fizzingly alive ... it teems with vivid, quirky evidence of the way the English vocabulary bears continuing witness to our cultural history' (Sunday Times)

'His book is a patient, thorough and highly entertaining excavation' (Sunday Times)

'Hitchings's examples cover the full span of English' (Observer)

'Expert analysis ... this is a wonderfully well-organised and entertaining book, which thoroughly deserved to win last year's John Llewellyn Rhys Prize' (Daily Mail)

'Hitchings has teased out the stories lurking behind the language to provide a most satisfying whole' (Publishing News)

'Much more than a collage of etymological trivia, this is a dense and thorough excavation of the stories that lie behind the words we say' (Metro)

'Quite how Hitchings has managed to wrestle this dizzying mountain of dense information into such an elegant narrative . . . is a feat almost as admirable as that of the great lexicographer. His book is painstakingly detailed, closely argued and suffused with a contagious enthusiasm for the secrets woven into the fabric of our words (Daily Telegraph)

'Hitchings steps deftly round the traps and the stereotypes, while throwing up great clouds of delicious trivia' (Peter Robins, Daily Telegraph)

'Filled with fascinating nuggets' (Independent)

'A thrilling narrative history of our uniquely beautiful and thriving language' (Catholic Herald)

'Comprehensive guide ... with countless revelations and world-related trivia, this is the often surprising story of the words we take for granted' (Heritage)

'This is a hugely informative and non-academic account' (Sunday Tribune)

'Fascinating subject ... a detailed, comprehensive study ...there are lots of surprises, and the author's enthusiasm is infectious. An entertaining and informative read' (Shropshire Star)

Much more interesting than a simple dictionary of etymology (Writing Magazine)

Marvellous, scholarly and beautifully written, quite the best of its kind I have read in years ... wise and witty (Oldie)

'Wonderfully detailed history ... a rich and rewarding read' (Good Book Guide)

'The author's deliverings reveal much that intrigues about our history and about our social environment' (This England)

Book Description

Journey into the history of English and discover how words have been absorbed into our language to make it what it is today


Inside This Book (Learn More)
Browse Sample Pages
Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting (and not stupid) 19 Aug 2008
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Has a comprehensive bibliography for future research, and two sets of indicies so can be used as a text book. However you can also read it as a story book. I was surprised just how fascinating the history and development of the concepts behind each of the words described turned out to be.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic book for wordy people! 23 Feb 2009
By Petra
Format:Hardcover
Wow! Chanced across this book and thought it sounded good, but it is far better than that! If you have ever wondered about the origin of words in English, want to know which words come to us via where (and often when and why!) or what a calque is (makes you think twice about your mortgage!) then consider this book: it's word trivia galore! Very readable, easy to reference, highly enjoyable and absolutely fascinating.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars secret life of words 6 Mar 2010
Format:Paperback
The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (Paperback) give a brilliant account of hoe and when the various words that were introduced into the English language and also how that langusge changed and adopted including non-Englisg words into every day use. It is surprising thh amount of words that were introduced. This is a good book for the study ot the development of the Englaih language
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Secret Life of Words 18 Feb 2009
Format:Hardcover
Much more than words - a tour round English history through the medium of our language. Very readable and disappointing to finish!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars No Structure 5 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have an interest in languages, and thought that this would be a very interesting book to read. Unfortunately, the book tends to wander, there is no real structure to the lay out of the book, there is no clear beginning, middle and end. There are several instances where he lists off words just like that, so called loan words in English, and I am not afraid to say I never use them even though it is claimed that
these are in everyday use. Occasionally there are glimpses of interesting passages but these are interrupted by more word lists.

I would not even called the book academic, even though there are lots of references. It is not at all comprehensive, as he is very biased, he mentions English in the USA and Canada, but fails to cite the influence of Irish (Gaelic) on English, and there are several examples, eg clann, he even gets the word "Uisce Beatha" completely wrong (from which whiskey/whisky come from). What about smithereens, smashing, galore, esker etc etc etc? What about Hiberno English?

Finally may I say that this book is hard going.... I forced myself to read it right to the end just to see if any references were made to Irish Gaelic.

Don't bother!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great present 9 Jan 2012
By can55
Format:Paperback
I bought this book as a Christmas present for my Dad, and he loves it. I would recommend it to others.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars zzzz.... 22 Nov 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Oh dear..unfortunately this was a dreadful book that I couldnt complete. Whole chapters went by and the author kept droning on and on and on endlessly.

This was one destined for my charity pile.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating 7 Dec 2013
By Mrs H
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I love this book. I am learning so much about how our language evolved. I can dip into it when I have time and it is easy to understand
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
I borrowed this book from a library and thought I'd actually buy it because it's really interesting. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Meg
3.0 out of 5 stars book v cover
dont be fooled by the trendy cover-this is NOT 'words for dummies'.the breadth is breathtaking so dont think you can dip in and out. Read more
Published 11 months ago by jon smith
5.0 out of 5 stars "proper English"
Hitchings has produced an authoritative and well written history of the English language. A very readable and credible account. Excellent work.
Published 24 months ago by John B. Chambers
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing
This lists where words where derived from but does not really explain the transformations. It would have been better going into more depth on fewer words and tracing their... Read more
Published on 4 Mar 2012 by T. Page
4.0 out of 5 stars Secret Life of Words
Nice tome for those interested in English Philology. Delivery was protracted due to Xmas rush and weather, but got to me before Christmas.
Published on 15 Jan 2011 by Harry Peanut
1.0 out of 5 stars dishonest and politically biased
it would have been a far more readable book if the author had a clear plan for the themes of each chapter. Read more
Published on 20 Dec 2009 by aldourin
2.0 out of 5 stars A long list of words and derivations
I got off to a bad start because of two irritations:

1) The author says that words evocate their history, but that is only true in minds which know that history. Read more
Published on 15 Nov 2009 by Ransen Owen
1.0 out of 5 stars I tried really hard with this book but eventually put it down
I had information overload reading this book and I just did not 'click' with it. I love reading and so I was looking forward to learning more about words. Read more
Published on 18 Oct 2009 by J. Fenn
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