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The Story of English: Where it Has Been, Where It Is Going,
This review is from: The Story of English in 100 Words (Kindle Edition)
The "Story of English in 100 Words" is intended to merge two approaches to writing about the English language. One approach is to discuss themes and trends within major periods of development, as author David Crystal has done in other volumes. Another approach involves "wordbooks" or "phrase books" that examine the etymology of particular words or the origins of certain phrases. In an effort to reconcile these two techniques, Crystal has selected the 100 words he offers here because each tells part of the story of how the English language developed, all the way through to contemporary usage.
Crystal largely succeeds in his attempt, though I think the result still ends up being more of an etymology book than a systemic history of English. Still, it's a fun and highlighy readable narrative, and as a bonus you'll actually learn the stories of far more than 100 words--while each of the 100 chapters uses a single word as its starting point, Crystal introduces many other words and phrases for illustration and comparison.
There are plenty of illuminating moments. Chapter 4, for example, explores the history of the word "loaf", a word that started out as the Anglo-Saxon "hlaf" during the 9th Century. The head of a household was a "hlaf-weard," literally a bread warden; the woman of the house was a "hlaefdige," a bread-kneader (the word "dige" is related to the modern "dough"). Hlaf-weard changed in the 14th century, as people quit pronouncing the "f", leading eventually to "lahrd" and finally to "lord." (Although Crystal doesn't mention it in this book, the Anglo-Saxon "hlaefdige" gradually evolved into "lady".) It's interesting to learn that the words "lord" and "lady" derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word for a loaf of bread, which speaks volumes about the subsistence level of the Medieval English economy--such people were important because they controlled the food supply, not just because they owned bags of gold.
Another, similar book, which I took up after finishing Crystal's work, is The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, which performs a similar service, albeit in a more pointedly witty way.