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The Secret Life of Words

Don’t be confused by the title of this book, which feels like one dreamt up by publicity people and which may not have been the first choice of the author, Henry Hitchings. The subtitle says it better: How English Became English.

The cover of The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings
The cover of the US edition of The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

Language is much more than simply a way to communicate and English retains within itself a record of invasion (of England and of other countries by English speakers), seafaring explorations, colonisation and empire, and trade. Every contact with other cultures has left its mark in the words that we use. Henry Hitchings chronicles them in a study that is as much a survey of the relevant bits of English history as it is of the archaeology of the language.

It has become a cliché to say that English is a mongrel, having taken in words and influences from so many languages that its true origins have become submerged, along the way losing its grammatical baggage of verb endings, moods and cases. Some linguists even argue that modern English is a creole, a simplified tongue stripped of its grammatical intricacy by the collision of different linguistic groups through the urgent need to communicate. One view is that the language clash was that between post-Conquest medieval English and Norman French. In his survey of the forces that led to our modern language Henry Hitchings hints that he agrees, though for him the simplifying force is the impact between pre-Conquest English and the Scandinavian languages of the Vikings and Danes.

Hitchings’ exploration of the roots of English is presented in 16 chapters with enigmatic titles such as Powwow, Bonsai and Voodoo, illustrative words brought into the language as a result of the changes he writes about in each chapter. For example, onslaught is a word of Dutch origin (Middle Dutch aenslag, from aen, on, plus slag blow); he picks it to head the chapter on the influence of that language on English, which began well before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which William of Orange took over the English throne. Cambric, selvage and stripe attest to the cloth trade with the low countries; sketch, masterpiece, landscape and etch remind us of Dutch and Flemish painters; waffle, boss and cookie are tokens of early Dutch influence in North America; the large numbers of Dutch-originated maritime terms in English, such as deck, boom, reef, orlop, bowsprit, skipper, hull and dock show the maritime power of the Dutch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the many denigratory terms on the model of Dutch courage that were once common highlight the antipathy between the English and Dutch through their competition for sea supremacy.

It’s a densely illustrated tale, essentially chronological but with many excursions up interesting byways. As he says at the beginning of his journey, “Words frequently come from unlikely places, and the unlikelihood is illuminating.”


[Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English; in the UK, published by John Murray, £16.99; ISBN13:9780719564543, ISBN10:0719564549; In the US and Canada published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, US$27.00, ISBN13:9780374254100, ISBN10:0374254109; hardback, pp440, including indexes.]

Page created 3 May 2008

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