I love words. Well, who wouldn’t — they’re such cute little things, aren’t they? Apart from “shitknife”, I guess, which doesn’t sound very nice. A lot of writers appear to think of words as necessary evils, however, finicky barriers to be withstood in the pursuit of plot and character and the bestseller list — and in a way, they’re right. The novelist Samuel Butler once defined a definition as “the enclosing of a wilderness of idea behind a wall of words”, and there’s some truth in that (though presumably Butler defining the word “definition” put that idea behind two walls, which would be enough to freak any young notion out, pretty much permanently).
Often you find that while trying to express something, or describe a situation or character or atmosphere, every word you set down seems to get in the way of what’s in your head, rather than delineating it. Sometimes, too, after a long day spent worrying words into their sentence-shaped pens — like particularly dim-witted sheep, or sheep who’ve heard that bad things happen in the pens — you can wish the little letter-faced bastards would sort themselves out for a change.
Being a writer or reader doesn’t mean you have to care about words, any more than enjoying classical music means you have to bone up on the history and construction of violins… But I happen to like words as well as stories, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite books on the subject — on the off-chance someone might be vaguely interested. If you’re not, then stop reading now, and let’s not waste any more of each other’s time. Go out and kiss a stranger instead. But don’t say I told you to.
First, there’s the reference works, from standard compendiums like the CHAMBERS DICTIONARY OF ETYMOLOGY or the BLOOMSBURY DICTIONARY OF WORD ORIGINS or the HENDRICKSON ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORD AND PHRASE ORIGINS — all of which are great, and in the company of which you’ll be able to while away many a minute — to hardcore word-bothering tools like Sweet’s STUDENT’S DICTIONARY OF ANGLO-SAXON.
Then there are books which provide an overview of the language as a whole, a nicely accessible example of which is MOTHER TONGUE. Bill Bryson’s affable canter through the history of English has all the trademarks of his most engaging and least superficial work — entertaining anecdotes, a well-drawn historical through-line, and an easy, conversational style. It’s not short on substance, either — and serves as a great introduction to caring slightly too much about words. David Crystal’s THE STORIES OF ENGLISH is more scholarly in tone and depth, and thus a good follow-up: it contains a wealth of great material and background, split up into bite-sized pieces — and is about as comprehensive a guide to the history and development of the English language as any non-maniac could hope for.
English ain’t the only fruit, of course, hard though that may sometimes be to remember on the Internet. Mark Abley’s SPOKEN HERE is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read — a passionate discussion and analysis of how languages change and fight for life, while coming to both enshrine and create their society in which they are used. More lightweight but still diverting works in a similar vein include TINGO, by the impressively-named Adam Jacot de Boinod, and IN OTHER WORDS, by the much more conservatively-monikered C. J Moore, both of which provide lots of interestingly culture-specific words and ideas (and example from which, ‘Shibui’, I used as the very first entry in this blog).
Words don’t just change — they die, too. Jeffrey Kacirk’s THE WORD MUSEUM is a fascinating collection of words that have fallen out of use… but which are often oddly compelling. I’ve always liked ‘peaceparting’, for example, once used to describe a non-arduous death. Charles MacKay’s out-of-print LOST BEAUTIES OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE is another great resource along the same lines. Original published in 1874, it documents — with a pedant’s open irritation — words which were drifting out of usage at the time. One of the things that’s interesting about this book — and I’m deploying the word ‘interesting’ in quite a loose sense, obviously — is the number of words which MacKay cites as dying, but which remain current in our time: often I suspect this is because although the term may have been losing currency in the UK in his time, it was still in common usage in the US, and has now happily slipped back into what is now International English. An older alternative is the DICTIONARY OF OBSOLETE AND PROVINCIAL ENGLISH, by T. Wright.
For both Wright and MacKay you’re going to have to get upside eBay or AbeBooks — and the Wright is going to set you back a few quid. But I’m currently loving WORDS, WORDS, WORDS – SOME CURIOS FROM A WORD-COLLECTOR’S CABINET, by A. Smythe Palmer, a beautiful Victorian volume I picked up for £3.50 in a second-hand store. And then there’s WHY PICCADILLY? by E. Stewart Fey, which falls into the sub-category of words and names specifically relating to London, but has a charmingly idiosyncratic 1930s style — and was a battered and water-stained bargain at 95p. Books on words are often out there to be picked up for next to nothing, as fewer and fewer people give a toss, presumably. Care about what celebrity halfwits are doing with each other, and you’re a successfully-integrated member of society. Give a damn about how our language and words came into being and apparently you’re some kind of geek. Well, so then call me a geek, say I, but don’t stand too close while you’re doing it, because I will probably punch you. Or hit you. Or belt you. Or… Some manifest some other word enclosing the wilderness of thumping within its walls.
I’ll end on another favourite, an this time one you should be able to find relatively easily: NTC’S DICTIONARY OF CHANGES IN MEANINGS. This book is Word Nerd heaven, tracking the shifts in meaning of hundreds of words over time — tracing not just their origins (as with most etymological texts) but how words have followed their own journeys over the centuries — fascinating for appreciating how some retain shadows of former meanings, contributing to the subtle nuances they have now.
Words don’t just tell their own histories, of course, but ours too. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a writer or a reader, communicating is what we all do, all the time. If you’re living in a world where ideas are hidden within walls, then surely it’s worth knowing who built those walls, and what from, and why… the better to comprehend the wilderness inside us all.