The Story of English in 100 Words

by David Crystal (Profile Books, 2011): 288pp, £12.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 1 84668 427.

Reviewed by Michèle Clarke

Buy this book

This is a book for a great dip, not one for reading from end to end. The Contents page will lead you to your favourite words from the 5th to 21st centuries, from roe to twittersphere. It's a 'history of the world's most ubiquitous language' with handpicked words 'that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped shape our vernacular'.

Reversals or confusions

I have so enjoyed David's writing, as usual. There is, first, a short history of English words from Bede, through Germanic origins, loanwords from Latin, Scandinavia, France, and from our explorations around the world. David states, 'Perhaps the most interesting side to vocabulary is when the exploration of word origins (etymology) brings to light results that are unexpected or intriguing. We see people adapting the language in order to make sense of it', plus reversals or confusions of meaning.

Hence perhaps the huge upsurge of interest in our language over the last decade, with many books being published on slang, odd phrases and sayings, and on etymology itself (one of the last was actually serialised on radio).

Small potatoes

How fascinating to find that the so-called greengrocer's apostrophe actually appeared in the 16th century, occurring in potato's, to circumvent the unfamiliarity of the English with the Italian and Iberian ending o and their unhappiness with the plural potatos, which didn't reflect the long vowel. Perhaps we ought to admit that greengrocers know more than we do!

But potatoes now has all sorts of other meanings. These include 'worthless' as in little or small potatoes; then the opposite, meaning 'correct' or 'excellent', as in That's the potato! or in Australia a clean potato, meaning someone honest; or 'money', as in the American slang Got the potatoes to buy it?; or, even weirder, 'girl', in Australia again, as in potato peeler – i.e. Sheila!

Potato is just one of the 100 words described in similar vein in what is always a fascinating journey into history and literature.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews