Jul 21, 2010

The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English is, as the title indicates, a history of the English language. Specifically, it’s a history of the English lexicon, which is to say of the words that compose the language. Henry Hitchings mainly focuses on borrowings, which are foreign words that enter the lexicon and eventually cease to be considered foreign. And even more interestingly, he’s very much concerned with exploring what these borrowings tell us about the cultural and social history of English and its speakers.

I should probably tell you up front that I’m a complete linguistics geek: as an undergraduate I took linguistics classes that would give me no credits whatsoever just for the fun of it; I worked for a year as a research assistant in linguistics; I briefly considered betraying my first love, literature, for a career in the field; and so on. I’m telling you this because I suppose you should take it when a grain of salt when I tell you that this book is an absolute joy to read and immensely accessible – I’d say that, wouldn’t I? But then again, I really do think that Hitchings made an effort to make the book accessible. He avoids technical terms as much as possible, and he explains things in a way that tells readers without a background in linguistics everything they need to know.

More importantly, the reason why I think this book would appeal to even non-linguistics geeks is because his focus is very much sociological. The Secret Life of Words is as much a social history as it is a history of the English language, which is exactly as it should be, considering how closely tied up language and society are. It would be difficult to write a history of the English language that didn’t acknowledge that the fact that it absorbed words from so many different languages from all over the world is a direct result of colonialism. Hitchings doesn’t even try to – on the contrary, he’s immensely sensitive to the power relationships involved when different languages and cultures come into contact, and to how this will necessarily affect language.

What The Secret Life of Words does, then, is chronologically trace a linguistic archaeology of sorts: it starts with Celtic, Latin and Viking additions to the Anglo-Saxon lexicon; it moves on to the Norman Conquest and to contacts with other European languages and cultures; and it then traces centuries’ worth of imperial expansion and the impact this had on the language. Analysing when certain words were fist borrowed into English can tell us a lot; furthermore, the kind of vocabulary that is borrowed reveals what the main areas of contact between two cultures were. For example, it’s no coincidence that so many musical terms come from the Italian, while Dutch borrowings are mostly nautical terms.

Hitchings is also interested in the fact that linguistic assimilation can be seen as a tool of imperialism. Certain assimilated terms can show us that an appropriation and misunderstanding of, or even disrespect for, the word’s original meaning and cultural context took place. For example, he tells us that the word ‘pariah’ comes from a misunderstanding of the Tamil term “Paraiyar”. What English colonialists misunderstood was the nature of the role the drummers the word “Paraiyar” refers to played at the Hindu festival they watched; the current meaning of “pariah” reflects this erroneous cultural interpretation.

Another thing I liked was the fact that Hitchings takes on the ridiculous notion of “linguistic purity” and doesn’t hesitate to mock “the purists who believe all change is for the worse and pretend that the English word-stock can be set in aspic.” As any sensible person knows, language is ever-changing, and most attempts to resist change are little more than pedantry. Furthermore, pleas for “linguistic purity” often go hand in hand with a disturbing advocacy of cultural isolation, and with a smug sense of cultural or even racial superiority. The fact that Mussolini attempted to ban all borrowings from Italian and replace them with new, “purer” terms is very telling.

As much as I enjoyed The Secret Life of Words, there were two things that kept me from loving it wholeheartedly. The first was the fact that I felt a little excluded from the book’s intended audience. Hitchings would often address his readers directly and say things like, “We native speakers of English...” At one point, he acknowledges the possibility that speakers of other languages will read a translation of the book, but not that non-native speakers would ever read it in the original. If this sounds trivial to you, I highly recommend reading Jenny’s wonderful post on how feeling included in a book’s intended audience can absolutely matter. Jenny’s focus was on gender, but what she says goes for other things too. It seems to me that it’s always advisable for authors to avoid any clear indicators of who they think their audience is – it’s likely they’ll be wrong, or at least not completely right, which means that some readers will feel left out. And who would want that to happen?

Secondly, I regret to say that whenever Hitchings mentioned a Portuguese word, he either mistranslated it or failed to indicate that the term was dated – dated enough that I wasn’t at all familiar with the meaning he attributed it, and in addition to being a native speaker, I have studied the language’s history in some detail. “Tanque”, for example, does not mean “pond”. “Palavra” means “word”, not “talk”. The distinction might seem subtle, but it does exist. Ultimately these mistranslations are beside the point, as what really matters is the fact that these words originated current English terms. But noticing this made me a little wary, as errors in non-fiction always do. I need to be able to absolutely trust the author’s research, or else I keep wondering what else he could have got wrong. Are the things he says about other languages, of which I’m not a speaker, also incorrect?

But that aside, I really did enjoy The Secret Life of Words. It’s readable, it’s fun, it’s culturally sensitive, and it’s full of fascinating etymological trivia. If you’re a lover of language or of social history, then this book’s for you.

Interesting bits:
Borrowing is not a one-way street. (…) Russian borrowings from English include the slightly sinister biznismen, as well as dzhemper (‘jumper’) and vokzal (‘station’). The last of these is a corruption of Vauxhall, the name of an area in South London once famous for its pleasure gardens; a Russian delegation of the 1840’s stopped there and took this word, displayed on a sign, to be the generic name for a station.

Complaints about borrowings from French have been clamorous for much of the last millennium. We shall see a particular anxiety about them later when we look at the nineteenth century. To this day many people consider them pretentious. The standard argument has always been that Anglo-Saxon words are pure and French ones artificial, barbarous, and infused with the dark scent of depravity. But purism itself carried a whiff of the absurd. Much of what is condemn as wrong was standard in the past, and the very language that is now held as ‘pure’ is likely to have been imported in its time. What passes for vigilance is often just intolerance in disguise.

The radical philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with the adjectives secretarial and exhaustive. The first author to use the word adventuress was Horace Walpole, who more famously coined serendipity, that once rare but now adored word for the faculty of making pleasant, unexpected discoveries, inspired by the old name for that teardrop of a tropical island, Sri Lanka. (…) Appropriately, we owe intolerance to the grammarian Robert Lowth, whose A Short Introduction to the English Language (1762) offered a narrowly prescriptive view of the subject – a first inspiration for all those letters to newspaper editors that fulminate against split infinitives and dangling prepositions.

Whenever war is raging, we assimilate new words. The atrocities of modern combat are neutralised with talk of friendly fire and collateral damage, terms eloquent only of the bureaucratic nature of the modern military. Euphemisms rub epauletted shoulders with detachments of management speak and pseudo-science – plus the odd blackly humorous item like gremlin. In this context the verb degrade means kill, while explosive device and physical package take the place of bomb and warhead. The noun incident is used of almost any unsavoury occurrence. Today’s army officers sound like business consultants, trading in impressive gibberish or fancy obfuscations. Violence is routinely disguised.

Some of the usages that seem distinctively American to speakers of British English are in fact British in origin. The habit of saying gotten instead of got reflects the standard British usage of a couple of hundred years ago. The preference for fall rather than autumn now seems distinctively American, but fall was used in this sense by Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Carlyle and John Evelyn, to name but three. Equally, saying I guess isn’t a Valley Girl tic, but a locution as old as Chaucer.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)


  1. Must get this from the library for my OH - he loves books about language. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. 'We native speakers of English'- I can understand you being upset by the thought that the author did not think anyone whose first language wasn't English might not enjoy. I don't think he was excluding on purpose, he sounds like a normal Brit, who thinks no one else would be interested. Most British, are not very good at imagining a wider audience, we are not known for being out going. I think the author would be amazed his book had travelled so far. I am personally speaking from a British point of view and I am happy to be contradicted.

  3. Is it bad that my first thought when seeing his name was suddenly hearing Audrey Hepburn's faux Cockney accent? How hilarious is it that he's a language expert and his name is so close to Henry Higgins?!

    Ahem. I'm sorry you felt excluded...some books definitely make me feel that way and it really does dim the experience. :(

    Still, as a fellow language nerd, this sounds like such fun! In fact, I was looking at my dewey decimal review directory, and I saw I've barely read (or at least reviewed) ANY books about linguistics since I've been blogging! Which is crazy, because I used to read them all the time in college. So now I want to go seek more out, and this one sounds like a good place to start.

  4. This has been on my list forever; I'm so glad you reviewed it!

    I tend to be the girl who reminds people how French English is, simply because I can. (Et aussi, ma mere est fran├žaise et je parle un petit peu de fran├žais.) This sounds absolutely fascinating.

    I don't like, however, that he excludes people who don't speak English as a native language (wouldn't students with a passion for English as a language pick this up?), and the mistranslations- I'll keep an eye on his French.

  5. The topic is fascinating. I will admit to knowing virtually nothing about liguistics though. I will give you alot of credit though for sticking with him. The two faults you have described would have sent me packing. I don't like it when an author assumes, incorrectly, who their audience is. And those mistakes! You have to figure if he made errors with your language, he probably did the same thing with others. THis would have caused me to lose all confidence.

  6. This book definitely sounds right up my alley -- I am fascinated by linguistics and have been wanting to learn more. I am disappointed to hear that he mangled his references to the Portuguese language. It makes me wonder what other errors he made.

  7. Your example of how we use "pariah" makes me think that one of his points, whether he makes it explicitly or not, is that English is compounded of errors like that. I love it when an error leads to a variation in spelling or a homophone.

  8. It does sound fascinating, but I'm not sure it'd be that readable for me.

  9. Those errors would certainly make wary too, though of course i wouldn't have known about them if you hadn't said anything, not speaking a word of Portuguese myself...

  10. I love the sound of this! I've never been terribly interested in the history of the english language, but it would be so interesting to learn more about where the words came from. Cool book, and lovely review!

  11. I was sooooo excited about this book throughout your review...until I got to your misgivings. :( It sounds so incredibly interesting!!! And I was so excited that you said you believed it was totally accessible even to linguistic-ignorants like me. But I have to say that knowing he made such blatant errors really puts me off. Knowing that, I know I would find myself questioning everything, and I would end up driving myself crazy. (I've done it before when I've stumbled upon factual errors in a work of non-fiction, so I know how I can turn into my own worst enemy in situations like that.) And I'm also very sorry that you very understandably felt left out. :( I don't understand why an author wouldn't be more careful about that. And thanks for the link to Jenny's post--I'm looking forward to reading it.

  12. I wouldn't call myself a linguistics geek, not at all. However, whenever a book states that it is about English, I find it hard to not buy it. And the cover alone makes it look interesting!

  13. By the time I realised what linguistics was, it too late to add some subjects into my course. I think it's a pretty fascinating, casual subject but I hate to be speaking with somebody who was very intense about it! It'll make me very nervous! I have a couple of word-y books - The Alphabet by David Sacks and Wordwatching by Julian Burnside - both fascinating.

  14. Wow this sounds right up my alley! I love books about linguistics and language. Have you ever read Alphabet Soup? It's one of my favorites.

  15. You were able to spot the mistakes in Portuguese, so it seems reasonable to assume there would be mistakes in other languages too. ... which is too bad. It sounds like such a great book. (And I love the cover!) I love books about words too, and have read several books about Yiddish, because it is a language that is a total amalgam of at least four other languages, and so seeing what words came in from where can be very instructive about history, lifestyle, etc.

  16. Very interesting to catch up with this.

    I'd like to reassure prospective readers that the book is not riddled with errors. A small number of errors in a book of this kind cannot be avoided; Portuguese is a language I do not speak, and I was reliant on (supposedly sound) secondhand information - e.g. OED - about borrowings from this language. I'll try to get the mistakes rectified for future printings.

    Apologies also for my Anglocentric perspective on who the book's consumers might be - it's wonderful to see that it is travelling far afield!

  17. I have never read a book on linguistics, and though it's accessible, I am a little put off by the fact that there are so many errors in the book.

  18. wow - I just read Henry Hitchings comments. Doesn't it shock you when the author just turns up like that. I knew I was right with his Anglocentric perspective. He never imagined it to travel so far. That is just such an English way of thinking.

  19. I must be a geek because I think it sounds like a fascinating read. I like reading books about word origins.

  20. You sent me to my bookshelves to check if I still have Alfred C Baugh's 'History of the English Language' which was one of my undergraduate standard texts - many years ago now. And yes, it's still there! This book sounds more accessible, but I did enjoy Baugh (despite his slightly intimidating name!).

  21. I'm so glad you wrote a little about your undergrad passion being linguistics. I looked at your book and thought...not for me. However, when you started talking about how he wrote this from a social history viewpoint, I became very interested. Thanks for the clarity otherwise I would have skipped this one.

  22. This doesn't sound very appealing to me but I did like the "interesting bits" you included.

  23. This sounds like a wonderful addition to my TBR list. I'm a total linguistics nerd myself. One of my favorite "reads" is the Oxford English Dictionary!

    Loved, loved, loved the image created when he says the purists pretend "the English word-stock can be set in aspic"!

  24. I am such a language nerd that I know I'm going to enjoy reading this. I actually checked it out of the library shortly before leaving home in May, but I wasn't able to finish it in time, and I had to return it. I only got a little ways in, but I was really enjoying learning where all the words came from. The Portuguese mistakes make me anxious though!

    (But sympathetic to the poor editors who edited the book. I am working on proofreading a fairly advanced Italian textbook at work, and I speak not a word of Italian. It's making me crazy trying to figure out if there are any problems with it, when the only checks I can do are between different stages of proof. What if everything is spelled wrooooong?)

  25. I love studying the relationship between linguistics and sociology, so this sounds like a fantastic read.

  26. This sounds fascinating! As always, thanks for your excellent review, Ana! Will have to check this out! :)

  27. Ha! I like seeing how many of your readers are closet liguistics geeks. A lot of us, it seems! --I was even thinking that the cover of the book would make a good poster.

  28. Ha! I like seeing how many of your readers are closet liguistics geeks. A lot of us, it seems! --I was even thinking that the cover of the book would make a good poster.

  29. I´ve done loads of linguistics classes (when you study English in Germany, you usually do linguistics and literature/ culture in your bachelor´s) and liked most of them.

    I love reading David Crystal´s works on the English language, he´s very entertaining, and (I think) more reliable.

    But the cover of this book looks awesome :)

  30. OOOOOh. This sounds like a book I would love, if only because I adore people who make my favorite arguments for me. I am such a linguistics geek that I actually MAJORED in it (I know, embarrassing, right?), and I abhor "linguistic purity" thinking with every geeky fiber of my being. Language is for communication, and the highest standard should be: how effectively can one communicate in this language? English is a pretty good one, actually, with an unusually massive vocabulary - probably because it can't resist assimilating cool words from other languages.

  31. This book sounds incredible. But, it is really too bad that it excludes such a large audience. And I can't help but wonder if he got the Portuguese words and definitions incorrect.... what does that mean for the other languages in the book? Makes me wonder about the full accuracy unfortunately! Thanks for pointing that out as it is something I never would have caught myself.

  32. Sounds like a fun book! I haven't read a good language nerd book since I took a grammar class in college. i was recently trying to talk to someone about this exact thing - the borrowing of words - and could not remember the details. This book might be a good refresher.

  33. This is the type of book I could picture reading in small doses over a long period of time.

    Have you ever read Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way? It was a fun read and a bit along similar lines. I loved it.

  34. Verity: I hope he'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Alessandra: It really is :)

    Vivienne: I never did think it was done intentionally, but it's one of those things I just can't help but notice, you know? And yes, it still is a bit startling when the author randomly shows up ;) But it's awesome when they're this nice!

    Eva: I think you'd enjoy this a lot :) And if you have any recommendations of linguistics books I'd love to hear them. I haven't read all that many in the past few years either, and I miss them.

    Clare: I do think students of English would particularly love it, yes! I can understand the insular perspective that both Vivienne and Mr Hitchings explained, but it's a pity. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it when you finally get to it!

    Sandy: That's really the problem with errors in non-fiction: they make you wonder about all the things you know nothing about! Still, in this case it wasn't too bad because the errors didn't affect his main point. He translated some of the words inaccurately, but that doesn't affect the fact that they entered the English lexicon, which is what the book is truly about.

    Stephanie: As I was telling Sandy, I wasn't TOO upset because the errors were secondary to his main etymological points. So I'd definitely still recommend it anyway. If you find linguistics fascinating, you'd probably really enjoy it.

    Jeanne: Yes, that's definitely one of the points - and also that there are layers and layers of history hidden in language. We wouldn't have that word today if not for the dismissive attitude towards its cultural context that once existed. We can't erase that, of course, but it's good to be aware of it. And speaking of errors, I also found the Vauxhal story interesting for similar reasons.

    Kathy: I'm sure it would be!

    Amanda: Yeah, it's one of those things that most readers would understandably miss :P

    Emidy: Thank you! I find the history of English so interesting - especially because it ties in with social history.

    Debi: I understand why you worry, but don't let that put you off, as the book really is worth it anyway! The main bulk of his research was definitely solid, and the errors don't affect the main points anyway. Which doesn't mean they should be there, of course, but at least it's not as bad as it could be.

    Iris: Between you, me, my boyfriend and Alessandra, my theory that non-Native speakers of English find these books fascinating is becoming more and more solid :P

    Mae: Don't let it make you nervous! A common misconception about linguistics geeks is that we're concerned with "correctness" and pick up on every little mistake, when in fact linguistics completely avoids perceptive approaches. I'm not sure if that's what you mean or not, but I thought I'd say this just in case :P And thank you for the recommendations! I'd heard of the Sacks book and will look up Julian Burnside.

    Brenna: I haven't - adding it to my wishlist!

  35. I'm a closet linguistics geek too! (Although not as much as I'm a closet anthropology geek... anthro classes were the ones that I took for fun.) Anyways, this sounds a lot like what I wanted Bill Bryson's Made in America to be, which means I'm off to my wishlist. :)

  36. Jill: I love the cover too - and mistakes aside, it IS a good book. I'd love to read a book about Yiddish! I bet its history really is fascinating.

    Mr Hitchings: I do understand why it happened, and that's what second editions are for. Thank you again for stopping by, and for writing such an enjoyable and informative book.

    Zibilee: They don't affect the book's main arguments, though so I do recommend it regardless:

    Jeane: Nothing wrong with being a geek ;) I'm sure you'll enjoy this!

    Katherine Langrish: I think I've heard of that before! I'd love to read it sometime.

    wisteria: You're most welcome, and I'm glad you're not going to skip it! There really is plenty here to hook fans of social history.

    Ladytink: There's more where those came from :P

    Terri B: The OED can indeed be a fascinating read. Have you read The Surgeon of Crowthorne? I have a review of that schedule for next week - absolutely fascinating read.

    Jenny: I'm sure you will enjoy it! And I do feel sorry for the poor editors, especially considering that there are so many words from different languages in the book. But I can't help but notice those things! Still, it's not nearly as bad as Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, where Portuguese was the only foreign language he used and he had characters who were meant to be native speakers muddle it completely :P

    Trisha: I love it too! Sociolinguistics was one of my absolute favourite classes.

    Melody: Thank you!

    Trapunto: So true about the cover. And yep, there seems to be quite a few of us. Linguistics geeks unite :P

    Bina: It's the same here - both linguistics and literature/culture are mandatory. My major was English, so I had to take English linguistics classes. The ones that gave me no credits were the Portuguese linguistics ones I took in addition to those :P And yes, David Crystal is awesome!

    Mumsy: That's awesome that you majored in linguistics! I'd have considered that if it had been an option here. And so true about the goal of language being communication. Also Henry Hitchings has another book coming out next year - it's called The Language Wars and it's a social history of the idea of "linguistic purity". How awesome does that sound?

    Amy: The mistranslations did make me wary, but to be fair they didn't affect the etymology, which is the main point of the book. I think the history bits are definitely reliable; it's just the translations that might not be.

    Kim: It definitely would be! This is such a fascinating topic.

    Jenners: I haven't, but it's been on my wishlist for ages and ages! Thank you for reminding me of it.

    Fyrefly: I hope you enjoy it! I find anthropology incredibly interesting too, though I don't know nearly as much about it.

  37. This is a very interesting thread. I have three observations.

    It's a bit strange how quick many readers have been to latch on to the criticisms of Hitchings' book, even though the writeup it gets here is in fact enthusiastic and 90% favourable. Posters repeatedly say things like "It's too bad about all the mistakes", but the review identifies just a couple of mistakes, not a massive number of them.

    Second, it's highly unusual for the author to weigh in with a comment to clarify something, but what's really extraordinary is that when he did so and said - I think modestly and in a way that was clearly somewhat ironic - that he was surprised at the book travelling so widely, a poster replied that "I knew I was right with his Anglocentric perspective. He never imagined it to travel so far. That is just such an English way of thinking." That is just such a patronizing comment it is truly unbelievable.

    Finally, I was brought to this blog because I have in fact recently read the book and was looking for some critical comment on it, so I looked using Google and this came up as a news item.

    I am not going to go into the qualities of the book, because these have been very well covered in the original review. However, readers who say things like "If there are mistakes I won't bother with it" or who approach it with the mentality that they will be on the lookout for mistakes, are really missing the point.

  38. This sounds like a really interesting book. I think you would like The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg as it sounds quite similar.

  39. This sounds fun, though I would certainly be on the lookout for any other possible errors if I were to read it, and I think constructions like "we native English speakers" seem strange and off-putting even for me, a native English speaker.

    I was, as it happens, a linguistics major myself, though it seems almost like a different lifetime at this point.

  40. Janet Hopkin: I do sincerely hope that nobody will avoid the book because of my two misgivings, as I did find it very much worth reading anyway. As for Vivienne's comment, perhaps it helps that she's a good friend and I have never known her to say anything unkind, but I read what she said very differently than you did. I don't think she meant to be patronising or to point fingers at Mr Hitchings; I thought that, on the contrary, she meant to say that she understands because she's British too, and so she knows the cultural context that could lead an author to imagine their book's audience to be more local than global very well.

    Zee: Thank you for the recommendation! I'll definitely look for it.

    Nicole: I can't actually remember if that was the exact wording, but yes, I do think it's always awkward to specify who you're addressing. That's great that you were a linguistics major! That wasn't an option at my uni; otherwise I might have been tempted.

  41. This sounds like a very interesting book! I was like some of the others about the mistake in Portuguese. "Palavra" is very similar to the Spanish "Palabra" so when I read it I immediately thought "word" (I'm definitely not fluent in Spanish though). I will admit that I took linguistics in college and was terrible at it! I found it interesting, but I'm more of a biology kind of girl at heart so I struggled.

    Since you pointed out how accessible this book is I will put it on my TBR. I like all the interesting little facts you wrote too. I'm very guilty of the attitude about French, but in my case I think it comes more from ignorance than anything so I am trying to change that and learn to read some words. I actually feel bad that I felt that way for so long and hang my head in shame!

    Awesome review!


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