The best books about words and their history

The Books I Picked & Why

Words in Time: A Social History of English Vocabulary

By Geoffrey Hughes

Book cover of Words in Time: A Social History of English Vocabulary

Why this book?

The important word in the title is "social." The author brings together words that belong to a particular theme, such as journalism, economics, and politics. An example? A 'historical menu' from Anglo-Saxon times (bread, butter, cucumber) through Shakespearean times (tomato, potato, banana) to the present-day (pizza, tacos, hamburger). And not forgetting drinks, from beer to Coca-Cola. It's a fascinating exercise in the linguistic archaeology of social transformation.


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Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern Idioms and Where They Come from

By Gareth Carrol

Book cover of Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics: Modern Idioms and Where They Come from

Why this book?

People have always been fascinated by well-established idioms, especially when their original meaning is obscure, such as "raining cats and dogs" and "kick the bucket." But new idioms continue to emerge, fuelled especially by films, television, and the internet, and this book brings together, for the first time, idioms that have arrived in the past fifty years or so. Not rocket science? Catch 22? Move the goalposts? And another sixty or so. Far more than I thought.


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The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word

By Allan Metcalf

Book cover of The Life of Guy: Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Unlikely History of an Indispensable Word

Why this book?

Most histories of vocabulary have little to say about a lot of words. This book reverses the process: it has a lot to say about just one word, guy. You might think that there isn't enough to fill an entire book, but you’d be wrong, because what we get is an insightful blend of history and linguistics—attempted regime change leading to language change. And one of the results? A new 2nd person plural pronoun: you guys.


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Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever

By Marek Kohn

Book cover of Four Words for Friend: Why Using More Than One Language Matters Now More Than Ever

Why this book?

As the title suggests: there are languages where there's no single word for "friend." What does that tell us about the way the speakers think and about their cultural history? This is a book about multilingualism and about the benefits of bilingualism—the normal human condition, for three-quarters of the people on this planet speak more than one language. It's especially insightful in the way it discusses future trends, such as Babel Fish technology. 


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A History of Foreign Words in English

By Mary Sidney Serjeantson

Book cover of A History of Foreign Words in English

Why this book?

I first read this as an undergraduate, and I find myself still referring to it, for no other book gives such detailed listings of the way loan words have entered English over the centuries. English has borrowed words from over 400 languages, and although it was originally a Germanic language, some 80 percent of its vocabulary is from other language families. For recent loans, the Oxford English Dictionary is an essential source book – if "book" is the right word for a website that gives the etymologies of over 600,000 items.


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