This book seems to have two purposes. The first is to explain the origins of a word or phrase, and these are often (but by no means always) surprising as their spelling or meaning changes over time.
The second, when the origin is pretty obvious, is to try to track down the first time a word or phrase appeared in written form. This of course doesn’t mean that the word may not have been used in speech long before that: over and over again I was surprised, seeming to have known a word from my youth (I will be ninety this year), how more recent the first appearance in print of some expressions is. Tracking down the first written appearance is of interest to the compilers of some dictionaries, but, I would have thought, is not particularly interesting to many readers. But there I am obviously wrong. The book is based on two television series in 2006 and 2007 called “Balderdash and Piffle”, in which viewers were asked whether they could find earlier examples than those so far given in the big Oxford English Dictionary to certain words. Some 6,000 emails were sent in! As a result the editors of the OED revised 79 of its entries, and the epilogue of this book is about these.
The text is sometimes jocose and itself playing on words.
The first chapter of Part One shows how the English language adapted (and often later altered) words from the various peoples (Angles, Vikings, Normans) who invaded Britain; then it goes on to show the contribution made by Chaucer.
The second and third chapter go into details about the compilation of dictionaries, from Dr Johnson’s to the online Oxford English dictionary. The fourth chapter tells us what modern English owes to the Bible and to Shakespeare.
So far there is little that will be new to people interested in the subject, though there are of course some examples which will be new to many readers. (I was particularly intrigued by the origins of the word “window”.)
Chapter Five deals with local English dialects (not all that familiar, I would guess), including the expressions brought in by the ethnic communities; and Chapter Six with words borrowed (mostly) from non-European countries. Words derived from Arabic often underwent the strangest convolutions (“admiral” is a striking example). The age of imperialism brought many other words. You would think that “Blighty” (for home, or Britain) would be a true English word, but it is a corruption of an Indian word for “foreigner”.
Chapter Seven deals with metaphors obviously taken from various sports. Those taken from music are equally obvious (except, perhaps, “fit as a fiddle” which refers not to a fiddle but to a dancing fiddler). Other mostly obvious metaphors come from the theatre, but there is one two (“steal one’s thunder”) which comes from a theatrical anecdote and one (“old chestnut”) which comes from a line in a play of 1816, now long forgotten.
Chapter Eight deals with words coming from science, inventions and inventors, warfare and computers, which are now used outside their original sphere.
Chapter Nine goes to town on the history of swear words (blasphemous, excretory, sexual), rude words denoting bodily parts, and racist words.
Chapter Ten is about onomatopoeic words; and Part One ends with a chapter on words that were fashionable in a particular decade from the 1920s onwards, and with a chapter on words whose origins are so far unknown (though actually such words or phrases are scattered throughout the book).
Most of the entries in Part Two are single words which might just as well have figured in Part One. Chapter Thirteen discusses the various ways of describing people who are “mad”, but there is no satisfactory explanation for “off one’s trolley”, “losing your marbles”, “a basket case” - all Games can do is to find out when these expressions were first recorded - in the case of cloud-cuckoo-land all the way back to Aristophanes. Chapter Fourteen deals with items of clothing: you might be surprised to what the heels in “well-heeled” originally referred, or that “pants” are connected to a 4th century Venetian saint.
Chapter Fifteen deals with words referring to a person, like “Bloody Mary”, “Bob’s your Uncle”, or “Hobson’s Choice”. This last one is connected to a particular individual, but attributions in several other cases are undocumented guess work.
Chapter Sixteen is devoted to words and phrases relating to dogs - the OED devotes no fewer than twenty-two pages to them. One or two surprises there. Chapter Seventeen deals with words relating to criminal or sub-criminal behaviour, and Chapter Eighteen with words of insult.
Chapter Nineteen is about euphemisms, mainly, of course, for bodily functions, for sexual activity and for death. (Incidentally, while there are ingenious but unproven origins for “kicking the bucket”, I can find nothing in the book about “swinging the cat”, and had to go to Google for it.) Having written with some relish throughout about matters sexual, Games in his Introduction rather archly recommends “parental control” for the chapter called “X-rated”, “tucked away discreetly at the end of the book”.
If this review seems a little over-long, that was also my feeling about the book itself.