The best books about words and their history

Who am I?

I grew up in a bilingual environment (Welsh and English) and have been fascinated by languages ever since, and the way they reflect thought, culture, and history. An English degree course at University College London gave me an academic grounding in language and literature, and I've been exploring and writing on those subjects ever since, eventually as a professor of linguistics, and these days as an independent scholar. My website provides a complete list of my publications, along with links to other materials. And the most fascinating thing about language? Its diversity and change. Whatever a language was like yesterday, it's different today, and will be different again tomorrow.

I wrote...

The Story of English in 100 Words

By David Crystal,

Book cover of The Story of English in 100 Words

What is my book about?

Which 100 words would you choose to tell the story of English vocabulary? Each word has to represent an important trend or theme in the history or present-day use of the language. Here are mine.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Geoffrey Hughes,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Words in Time as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The word "blurb" derives from a "pulchritudinous young lady" of that fictional name who appeared on a book-cover at the turn of the century. Quarrying the "Oxford English Dictionary" for its evidence, this book traces the extraordinary way in which English words have changed their meanings over the past millennium. These shifts both reflect Britain's rich history and reveal the social determinants of the language. In English vocabulary is stored the "archaeological" evidence of such great social transformations as the Norman Conquest, the growth of capitalism, the coming of the Reformation and the evolution of feudal hierarchy into democracy. The…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Gareth Carrol,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Gareth Carrol presents a collection of "modern idioms", which have become a part of our vocabulary in the past 50 years or so. In most cases, idioms such as "raining cats and dogs", that colour our everyday communication, are deeply rooted in culture and history. However, just like words, new idioms emerge in language, and many have entered our vocabulary through, TV, movies and the internet. These modern idioms can be dated very precisely. Jumping Sharks and Dropping Mics finds the origins of these idioms, and charts their development.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Allan Metcalf,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Life of Guy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Had you said "What a guy!" in 17th-century England, anyone would have understood you were admiring a flaming effigy of Guy Fawkes of the Gunpowder Treason Plot.

How times have changed! In America and, indeed, most of the English-speaking world, "guy" is so embedded in daily speech that we scarcely notice how odd it truly is: a singular "guy" referring to males only, a plural "guys" encompassing the entire human race. The journey from England's greatest villain to America's favorite second-person plural pronoun offers a story rich with surprising and unprecedented turns.

Through his trademark breezy, highly readable style, acclaimed…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By Marek Kohn,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Four Words for Friend as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A compelling argument about the importance of using more than one language in today's world

In a world that has English as its global language and rapidly advancing translation technology, it's easy to assume that the need to use more than one language will diminish-but Marek Kohn argues that plural language use is more important than ever. In a divided world, it helps us to understand ourselves and others better, to live together better, and to make the most of our various cultures.

Kohn, whom the Guardian has called "one of the best science writers we have," brings together perspectives…

A History of Foreign Words in English

By Mary Sidney Serjeantson,

Book cover of A History of Foreign Words in English

Why did I love 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.

By Mary Sidney Serjeantson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A History of Foreign Words in English as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it.

This work is in the public domain in the United States of America, and possibly other nations. Within the United States, you may freely copy and distribute this work, as no entity (individual or corporate) has a copyright on the body of the work.

Scholars believe, and we concur, that this work is important enough to be preserved, reproduced, and made generally available to the public. To ensure a quality reading experience, this work has been…

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