No, I haven’t lost it completely, but I have been reading David Crystal’s latest book, The Story of English in 100 Words. Professor Crystal has written all sorts of books about the English language, but this little delight is a perfect Christmas present for the bookish person in your life. It’s a brief history of the language presented in the form of one hundred words, each chosen because they say something about the way English has developed, since the earliest words of the 5th century through to the latest inventions (twittersphere, muggle, unfriend) of the 21st. It’s a great book to dip into, funny and intriguing and informative.
I never knew, for instance, that both gaol and jail in English were originally borrowed from the French, only gaol appeared in the 13th century from Normandy, and jail was a Parisian version that came along later. A whole series of words were borrowed twice, and to make matters worse, their meanings changed too. Hence the Norman reward, warden, warrant and wile are not quite the same as the Parisian regard, guardian, guarantee and guile.
Then there’s disinterested and uninterested. The difference here springs from the different ways we can use the word ‘interest’, as meaning both a curiosity about something, and a sense of personal advantage to be gained through something. Negating these meanings caused all kinds of confusion as disinterested began in the early 17th century by meaning ‘unconcerned or indifferent’ but by mid-century stood for ‘impartial’. Uninterested arose at the same time – mid 17th century – as ‘impartial’ and then a century later was being taken for ‘unconcerned, indifferent’. Dr Johnson tried to stabilise the meanings, by declaring disinterested meant unbiased and uninterested meant incurious. But still today there is a lack of distinction between the terms, and disinterested has tended to be used increasingly to mean ‘bored’.
Oh and I must tell you about blurb. This word first appeared on a piece of publicity for an American book back in 1907. It was at a publishing trade dinner where free copies of the book were being handed out to the guests. The special dust jacket showed a photo of a lady, a Miss Melinda Blurb, with her hand cupped to her mouth, ostensibly shouting out praises of the book. ‘YES this is a BLURB’ ran the headline, and the accompanying text was a gush of superlative praise: ‘When you’ve READ this masterpiece, you’ll know what a BOOK is.’ So not everything changes in the world of words.
There are loads of these kinds of insights, and they all make you want to go and tell someone about them. Like, did you know that the most written words are the, of, and and a, whilst the most common spoken words are the, I, you and and. And it’s not at all ungrammatical to begin a sentence with ‘and’, either. 19th century schoolteachers took against their pupils doing it, and so they banned the practice entirely, but it doesn’t feature in any of the prescriptive rules of grammar. I was delighted to know this as I do it all the time, and have often been called out on it (I just like the way it sounds inside your head). What! or Hwæt! As it would have been spelt, was one of the oldest ways of gaining the attention of a crowd by Anglo-Saxon poet-minstrels in mead halls when they were about to do their thing. It could be used to express surprise or shock, but was also one of the original ways of saying hello. Fopdoodle is ‘one of those words that people regret are lost when they hear about them’ Crystal comments. It means an idiot, a fool. Equally lost are ‘nappiness’ which meant ‘the quality of having a nap’ and a ‘curtain-lecture’ which was ‘a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed’. Oh boy, shouldn’t we get that one back in circulation? I know I could use it. All these come from Professor Crystal poring over Johnson’s dictionary so we don’t have to.
There’s something hypnotic about the old words and their development, but the book is equally good on the new ones. Reading it reminded me that LOL had a confused start in the language, meaning ‘lots of love’ to some people and ‘laugh out loud’ to others. ‘Who knows how many budding relationships foundered in the early 2000s because recipients took the abbreviation the wrong way?’ the author asks. I confess I thought it meant lots of love for ages; acronyms and abbreviations of all kind are just disastrous for me because I never quite get them right. It’s interesting to see how the most recent words have developed out of shortenings and mash-ups, like the acronyms LOL and PC, and chillax and webzine. What does that say about modern language use, I wonder?
This is a real chocolate box for word lovers and I thoroughly enjoyed it, which is quite something because I’m not a person who really likes dipping-into books. Do bear it in mind if you need a present for a keen reader.