Book Review: The Secret Life of Words

Posted on December 24, 2009

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Hey gang, this will be my last post before the 26th, seeing as I’m on the side of the good guys in the “War on Christmas”. For the past couple weeks, I have been buried in “The Secret Life of Words: How English became English” by Henry Hitchings and it has been a blast.

Hitchings walks us through the thousand year cultural extravaganza that culminates in the most widely spoken language ever to breeze across the planet. This is more than a linguistic portrait, it is a history of the English speaking people. Certain linguistic traits can be traced back almost a thousand years. Consider, for example, that when we try to be fancy, we tend to use words that are based in French. Pardon me comes to mind. This goes back to 1066, when the French Normans conquered the island, and for hundreds of years were the ruling class.

Hitchings takes us from the Arabic roots of our language, to the profound impact that the printing press to the oftentimes racist attempts to codify our language. This book is undoubtedly the most well researched book I have ever read (and enjoyed). The Bibliography is 60 pages long. Every nook and cranny is chock full of relevant examples and pertinent anecdotes, and it does so without sacrificing readability. Don’t be fooled though, this book is a beast. I only read a chapter a night, because I had to let it all sink in.

I started studying Linguistics in college, because I love the English language so much, and this book was the second one that I felt has done true justice to our tongue (Lolita being the first).  For grammar purists, I hope you will be reformed because of this book. For lovers of etymology, your roommate will soon get tired of you gasping at the layered roots of your favorite words. Everyday when we wake up and interact, we are unwittingly part of a pulsating, omnivorous cultural movement, and this book will tap you into it.

This is definitely one of my top five favorite non-fiction books of all time. Order it up from your locally owned and operated bookstore. It will be a month well spent. Charlie Chaplin once said that “finishing a book is like taking a child out back and shooting it.” I haven’t felt that way in a very long time. I got a little sad when I realized I only had 3 more chapters left, as I could never have this adventure through our lingua franca back again. Enjoy.

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