The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

Written by Henry Hutchings
Review by Edward James

This is not a history of the English language, despite the subtitle. There is little about grammar and syntax and nothing at all about pronunciation. As the main title indicates, this is a history of English vocabulary, although what is secret about it is difficult to tell. Ours is a young language whose development is exceptionally well documented, as shown by the copious notes and bibliography at the end of the book.

The book is arranged in roughly chronological order with a running historical narrative. The narrative is often inaccurate and over-generalises wildly and is best ignored. As a history of words (current words, not archaic words), the work is superb. Each chapter begins with a word typical of a particular era or a particular source; for instance ‘saffron’ introduces a chapter on words derived from Arabic (mainly mediaeval) and ‘ethos’ describes words taken from Greek (mainly 19th century), noting their first use and changes in meaning. There is a good index, so that the book can be used as a reference text to look up words. Having read this you will never read English in the same way again.