The best etymology books

Many authors have picked their favorite books about etymology and why they recommend each book.

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By Amanda Montell,

Book cover of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language

Ok sure, she had me at the title. But Montell dives deep into the language we use every day that, yes, often demeans women. Many of our body parts were taken from Latin words that dudes used to describe them. And the meanings weren’t always flattering. She also explains the positives of Valley Girl-Speak such as “like” and of vocal fry, and women are so fast to say “sorry.” Did you know that “hussy” used to mean housewife and “slut” meant a messy person that could be a man? Or that “bitch” used to be a gender-neutral name that had nothing to do with dogs? And why are some words considered feminine and others, male? Read this book to find out. 

Who am I?

From Lehr’s prize-winning fiction to her viral New York Times Modern Love essay, exploring the challenges facing contemporary women has been Lehr’s life-long passion. A Boob’s Life, her first project since breast cancer treatment, continues this mission, taking all who will join her on a wildly informative, deeply personal, and utterly relatable journey.  And that’s exactly the kind of books she likes to read – the ones that make her laugh, nod in recognition, and understand a little more about life. She recommends these five books to everyone who asks.

I wrote...

A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

By Leslie Lehr,

Book cover of A Boob's Life: How America's Obsession Shaped Me--And You

What is my book about?

A Boob’s Life explores the surprising truth about women’s most popular body part with vulnerable, witty frankness and true nuggets of American culture that will resonate with everyone who has breasts – or loves them.

Author Leslie Lehr has gone from size AA to DDDDD and everything between, from puberty to motherhood, enhancement to cancer, and beyond. And she’s not alone—these are classic life stages for women. At turns funny and heartbreaking, A Boob’s Life explores both the joys and hazards inherent to living in a woman’s body. Lehr deftly blends her personal narrative with national history, starting in the 1960s with the women’s liberation movement and moving to the current feminist dialogue and what it means to be a woman. Her insightful and clever writing analyzes how America’s obsession with the female form has affected her own life’s journey and the psyche of all women today.

Wisdom Sits in Places

By Keith H. Basso,

Book cover of Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

A brilliant and uplifting tale of how stories are used by the Western Apache people to tie them to place and give meaning to life. This is a quite unique book, speaking to all human experience. The Western Apache talk of mental smoothness, a mind that can be calm and focused. The smooth mind is a tightly woven basket, yielding but strong, resistant to the jarring effects of external events. “Wisdom sits in places,” said elder Dudley Patterson, “You will walk a long way and live a long time. And your mind will be smoother and smoother.” If objects and places have a story, they become magic vessels for memory and meaning. We are also more likely to look after and keep them. If landscapes contain stories, then we find that wisdom sits in places. Natural places themselves become moral guides. 

Who am I?

Alienation from nature has contributed to environmental problems in today’s world. Until recently in human history, our daily lives were intertwined with living things. I've always been keenly interested in the intersection between people and nature, between ecology and society. How should we live, what have we done lately? Observation today can bring much-needed respect, and if we are lucky, we will find that animals, birds, and places intercept us in our wanderings, helping to bring forth distinctive and personal stories. There is danger, the seas are mighty, many monsters lurk in the dark. But can be silence too. Pull up a chair by the blazing fire, come listen to those voices.

I wrote...

Sea Sagas of the North

By Jules Pretty,

Book cover of Sea Sagas of the North

What is my book about?

There are shadows on this shining sea. Fish cities have shrunk to hamlets, old ports have been levelled and harbours are full of warming water yet there’s barely a single ship. An Arctic author asks, how do you say goodbye to a glacier? A burnished skipper leans across the table and says, you know, we were more tolerant in those days, when we sailed and steamed and brought home stories. It seems more storms are gathering.

Sea Sagas of the North interweaves prose and alliterative sagas clockwise from Iceland to Norway and Denmark, to England, the Atlantic isles of Shetland, St Kilda, and the Faroes, and back to Iceland’s fire and ice. This is the territory of sagas, the Norse and Anglo-Saxon gods of old.

This book is available here.

I Yam a Donkey!

By Cece Bell,

Book cover of I Yam a Donkey!

When I hear bad grammar, I cringe. So this book was cringeworthy, but because it was done in a silly way to show bad grammar and how to correct it, it was very clever. A yam tries to get a donkey with poor grammar to speak correctly. When his vegetable friends butt in to see what the fight is about, the donkey has the last word.

Who am I?

I love a good pun and have written a joke book all about food called Lettuce Laugh. I think food is relatable to kids and they can put themselves in the food’s shoes and learn about friendship and being true to themselves through talking food characters. Humor plays a big part in the books I recommended, but it’s a great way to deliver a lasting message. Another book I wrote is also about food - Jalapeño Bagels, but unlike Bagel In Love, these bagels don’t talk! I love Bagel In Love so much I had a dress made with some of the characters embroidered on it.

I wrote...

Bagel in Love

By Natasha Wing, Helen Dardik (illustrator),

Book cover of Bagel in Love

What is my book about?

Bagel loved to dance. It made him happier than a birthday cake! And more than anything, he wants a partner who will spin and swirl, tap and twirl with him in the dance contest. But Pretzel sniffs that he doesnt cut the mustard, Croissant thinks his moves are stale, and Doughnuts eyes just glaze over. Can a cute cupcake save the day for our would-be Fred Éclair? Witty and pun-filled, this picture book really takes the cake.


By Eunice Nirja,

Book cover of Perfect

Based in Darjeeling, my maternal home, Perfect is the story of a fatherless young man Gideon as he wrestles with self-doubt and a dark past as he makes his way into adulthood. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story narrating his special bond with an enigmatic girl Lakisha and his complicated relationship with his father. Highly underrated, extremely moving, and filled with doses of inspiration, this story from the gorgeous hills of Darjeeling will remain with me for a long time.

Who am I?

As an Indian writer of contemporary fiction revolving around family, relationships, emotions, and hope, I am constantly on the lookout for similar novels to take inspiration from them and learn how to build beautiful, well-etched characters and portray heart-wrenching emotions. I love books that make me cry as they give me a fulfillment like nothing else. I love characters that are likable and make me feel a strong connection with them. And I like to write similar characters in my books as well. The readers of my novel The Fragile Thread of Hope have corroborated the same. I live in Gangtok, a hill station in northeast India.

I wrote...

The Fragile Thread of Hope

By Pankaj Giri,

Book cover of The Fragile Thread of Hope

What is my book about?

A gripping emotional inspirational fiction about love, loss, and finding hope in the darkest of times. 

Seasoned with the flavours of exotic Nepalese traditions and set in the picturesque Indian hill station, Gangtok, The Fragile Thread of Hope explores the themes of spirituality, faith, alcoholism, love, and guilt while navigating the complex maze of family relationships.

Inspirational and heart-wrenchingly intimate, it urges you to wonder—does hope stand a chance in this travesty called life?

The Girl

By 055311901X,

Book cover of The Girl

I read all of Catherine Cookson’s novels at a much too-young age, having “borrowed” them from my mom’s bookshelf when she wasn’t looking. I was immediately hooked. So many of Cookson’s books, not just The Girl, pit the wealthy, landed class against their poorer servants, and this theme made a deep impression on me. In fact, I think that Cookson, along with Dickens, probably had the most influence on my personal writing style.  

Who am I?

As the author of a historical/mystery/romance series that has won over sixty international awards in multiple categories, I’m attracted to books that cannot be pinned to one genre. I love sweeping sagas with elements of all three, perhaps because I was so immersed in classic literature as a kid and fascinated by stories of the past. I suspect I may have once lived in the 1930s and, having yet to discover a handy time machine lying around, I have resorted to writing about the era as a way of getting myself back there. I am, not surprisingly, addicted to period dramas and big band music. 

I wrote...

A Girl Like You

By Michelle Cox,

Book cover of A Girl Like You

What is my book about?

Henrietta Von Harmon works as a 26 girl at a corner bar on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s 1935, but things still aren’t looking up since the big crash and her father’s subsequent suicide, leaving Henrietta to care for her antagonistic mother and younger siblings.

In desperation, Henrietta takes a job as a taxi dancer at a local dance hall, and just when she’s beginning to enjoy herself, the floor matron turns up dead. When aloof Inspector Clive Howard appears on the scene, Henrietta agrees to go undercover for him and is plunged into Chicago’s grittier underworld. While she attempts to uncover a potential serial killer, little does she know that the Inspector is keeping his secrets of his own.

Words & Wisdom

By William Morris,

Book cover of Words & Wisdom

It’s a compact 100+ pages with 80 images, showcasing Morris’s passionately held view that beautiful, functional design should be accessible to all. All expressed through quotations from his own words and those of his friends, colleagues, and biographers.  

Fits in a pocket and is a perfect introduction for those who do not yet know of Morris’s ideas and influence. Also a handy source of quotations on the aesthetics of design.

Who am I?

I’ve had a lifelong admiration for William Morris’s eloquent writings on political optimism. And how these fit with the personal life of his wife Janey and daughter May. This began with my biography of the two women, published by the feminist Pandora Press and continuing through to editing Jane Morris’s Collected Letters. Admiration is also critical engagement rather than simple fandom. We need to think, act, and endeavor to promote how we might live better lives in the world. I love the task of relating individual lives in the context of their time. Biography involves historical imagination to fill the gaps in recorded information and conceive how those in the past thought, felt and behaved.   

I wrote...

The Collected Letters of Jane Morris

By Frank C. Sharp, Jan Marsh,

Book cover of The Collected Letters of Jane Morris

What is my book about?

The only direct source of the authentic voice of Janey Morris, long described as the silent and sullen wife of designer William Morris.

Five hundred letters written by Janey to a variety of correspondents, collected and meticulously edited by Frank Sharp and Jan Marsh. Full of unexpected details and opinions.

Origins of a Creole

By Bart Jacobs,

Book cover of Origins of a Creole: The History of Papiamentu and Its African Ties

This book studies Atlantic cultural history from the perspective of language, with a focus on Curaçao. A unique characteristic of this small Caribbean island is that its colonial rulers spoke Dutch, whereas the Black population used an Afro-Iberian creole called Papiamentu as its lingua franca. Jacob’s study embarks on an intriguing quest for the origins of this language, tracing it back to Portuguese-based creoles from the Cape Verde Islands and the nearby African West Coast. It argues that this seventeenth-century Portuguese-based creole later underwent significant Spanish influence and thereby constitutes a case of “reduplicated language contact.”

Who am I?

I am a philologist with a passion for Atlantic cultural history. What started with a research project on the African-American Pinkster tradition and the African community in seventeenth-century Dutch Manhattan led me to New Orleans’ Congo Square and has meanwhile expanded to the African Atlantic islands, the Caribbean, and Latin America. With fluency in several foreign languages, I have tried to demonstrate in my publications that we can achieve a better understanding of Black cultural and religious identity formation in the Americas by adopting a multilingual and Atlantic perspective. 

I wrote...

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

By Jeroen Dewulf,

Book cover of From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

What is my book about?

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square presents a new interpretation of the Mardi Gras Indians, one of New Orleans’ most enigmatic cultural traditions. By interpreting this performance in an Atlantic context and using historical sources in multiple languages, I traced the “Black Indians” back to the ancient Kingdom of Kongo in Africa and its war dance known as “sangamento.” The book shows that talented warriors in the Kongo kingdom were by definition also good dancers, masters of a technique of dodging, spinning, and leaping that was crucial in local warfare. Furthermore, it demonstrates how this performance tradition accompanied enslaved Kongolese communities to the African island of São Tomé and, subsequently, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Louisiana.

My Sibling

By Isabelle Filliozat, Éric Veillé (illustrator),

Book cover of My Sibling

My Sibling is an activity book with drawing prompts, stickers, crafts, and activities just right for 6-10-year-olds. Touching on jealousy, fairness, sharing, and more, the book gently guides children to try new ways of thinking and behaving towards their siblings. An extensive section for parents and caregivers more fully explains what parents can do to help their children get along.

Who am I?

I am a Child Psychologist and Author turned Parent Coach who often hears about the bickering, put-downs, jealousy, and conflict sapping families with multiple children. Telling them to “cut it out” clearly does nothing. Kids need not only the skills (how to talk, how to listen, how to manage feelings and resolve conflict) but also the motivation to use them, a combination I have spent my career thinking about, writing about, and teaching. All of the books I have written, and all that I recommend, include this winning combination of skills and motivation with the aim of helping children live happier lives.

I wrote...

The Sibling Survival Guide: Surefire Ways to Solve Conflicts, Reduce Rivalry, and Have More Fun with Your Brothers and Sisters

By Dawn Huebner, Kara McHale (illustrator),

Book cover of The Sibling Survival Guide: Surefire Ways to Solve Conflicts, Reduce Rivalry, and Have More Fun with Your Brothers and Sisters

What is my book about?

Having a brother or sister can be tough. It can also be great, but it’s hard to see the great parts with so many bad parts getting in the way. Things like fighting and bossing. Teasing and jealousy. Tattling. Pestering. You get the idea. The Sibling Survival Guide speaks directly to children ages 9-12, teaching the skills needed to manage feelings, resolve conflicts, and strengthen bonds. Warm, witty, and packed with practical strategies, this interactive book educates, motivates, and empowers siblings to live in peace.

A History of Foreign Words in English

By Mary Sidney Serjeantson,

Book cover of A History of Foreign Words in English

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.

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.


By Quentin Blake,

Book cover of Cockatoos

As a young boy, I always loved Quentin Blake. Although Quentin Blake’s style is very different from mine, I have always admired how much expression and humor he can convey in so few marks. 

This book taught me that you can learn to count in a fun way, with a story that is not ostensibly about counting, but actually, that is what you end up doing. I love the element of surprise on each page. I have always loved books that challenged me through pictures, making me spot differences or hidden elements on the page.

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated by color since childhood. I am not a very talkative person by nature and have always found that I communicate well through my illustrations. I have worked both as an illustrator and graphic designer. Through combining illustration with design, I learnt that I have the knack for distilling a complex idea into a simple image, or series of images. My illustrations combine visual trickery with simplicity, designed to make you think and smile. When my children were young, I decided to create picture books like this. The books in this list do the same. I hope you enjoy them!

I wrote...

Magic Colors

By Patrick George,

Book cover of Magic Colors

What is my book about?

This is a book about colors and color mixing. It is also a book full of surprises with ‘magic’ transparent pages. Its aim is to show today’s younger generation that you don’t need an iPad to create magical effects. If this book were designed on an iPad, it wouldn’t have the same impact as it does on paper. By combining a transparent page and a paper page, I show what happens when you mix two colors and also how a picture can magically change simply by flipping over a transparent page onto a paper one. It is like tapping a screen and watching the image change, instead we do it with paper.

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