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Verbal Energy

A really big story told in only 100 words

A linguist chooses the stories of 100 individual words to tell the larger story of English.

By Ruth Walker / April 11, 2012



When I first ran across mention of David Crystal's new book, "The Story of English in 100 Words," I imagined not so much a book as something that could be printed on a bookmark – the actual old-fashioned kind, printed on heavy paper and used to mark our place in a book before we had Post-it notes, and before "bookmark" referred to a favorite website.

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This 100-word story would read something like this: In the beginning were the English, and then the Britons (Celts), Scots, Picts, and Latins. Northern invaders (Vikings) made trouble in England after the Romans, under siege at home from the Goths, withdrew from Britain. The resident tribes then invited the Angles and Saxons in to help fend off northern marauders. By around AD 800, all this had led to the creation of a language recognizable as Old English. Then came the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. The conquering Normans showed up like rock stars with trunkloads of new vocabulary. The upper classes in England spoke French for centuries after that.

Oops, my 100 words are up, and I haven't even gotten to the Renaissance; the Enlightenment and its attendant scientific revolutions, with all the new vocabulary they produced; or the Age of Discovery, which proved that colonialism can run both ways, as English picked up new words from the Americas (skunk), Australia (kangaroo), and Asia (lakh).

It turns out that Mr. Crystal's book is a little different from that. He's identified 100 words, ranging from the unremarkable (we thought!), functional and to the quaint, forgotten fopdoodle, whose individual stories broadly illustrate the important patterns of the language. And, for example, illustrates how ancient and essential "function words" can be – and how frequently they get abbreviated. Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at Bangor University in Wales, also notes how far back the habit of starting a sentence with and goes – to Chaucer, at least.

Fopdoodle was a 17th-century term used to mean a fool, or a country bumpkin, we might say today, if most of the bumpkins we knew didn't have satellite dishes. It's a word in Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755 – Johnson didn't think much of fopdoodles. Crystal cites fopdoodle as an example of words that simply fall out of the language – to the regret of verbal "antiques collectors." But do we really want to pay for storage space, so to speak, to accommodate abstergent ("cleansing or scouring") or fubsy ("short and stout") or niddering ("cowardly")? Ah, but in the age of the Internet, storage is cheap, if not quite free.

My favorite entry of the 100 is the one for blurb. It is meant to exemplify words traceable to a definite year of coinage. Publishers had for some time been running promotional texts on book jackets. But for the jacket of a limited edition of his book "Are You a Bromide?" in 1907, American humorist Gelett Burgess designed a special jacket, featuring a photo of "Miss Belinda Blurb in the Act of Blurbing."

The text gushed, with idiosyncratic capitalization for the word Burgess had just coined, "Yes, this is a 'BLURB'! All the Other Publishers commit them. Why Shouldn't We?" The blurb burbled on hyperbolically ("when you've READ this masterpiece, you'll know what a BOOK is") and even took a swipe at one of the literary lions of the day: "We consider that this man Burgess has got Henry James locked into the coal-bin, telephoning for 'Information.' "

If you find yourself locked into a coal-bin, or even if you don't, "The Story of English in 100 Words" is full of information of the engaging kind.

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