Crystal clear

A review of
The Story of English in 100 Words
David Crystal
Profile Books, London, 2011.

If you have had anything professionally to do with the English language over the last 40-odd years, David Crystal will be a familiar name. Perhaps, like me, you will have come across him first as the knowledgeable, wise and eminently readable author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (1987). Or of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1995). Or you may know him from one of his more abstruse titles like Prosodic Systems and Intonation in English (1969), or Introduction to Language Pathology (1980).

On the other hand, you may know him from his more popular writing on language use and history. The Story of English in 100 Words is one of the latter sort. For Swedish readers (I am writing this as a long-time resident of Sweden), David Crystal is like an English combination of Sture Allén and Fredrick Lindström. He marries effortlessly the erudition of a lifetime’s study of linguistics with wit, humour and an ease of communication that most of us can only aspire to.

100 words

In this book, David Crystal picks just 100 words from the English dictionary, and uses each as a jumping off point for 100 short (1-3 page) essays. Each essay discusses the word, its history and context. And then goes further by using each word to explore all sorts of interesting linguistic and etymological byways.

The book follows a more or less chronological sequence. The first word, roe (rådjur), is the first known example of an English word in writing (from the 6th century). The last word, Twittersphere, is a coinage from the first decade of the 20th century. In between Crystal takes up, for example, loan words (street, skunk, trek), place names (lea), abbreviations (DNA, rep), grammar (ain’t, grammar), spelling (debt, music), word-play (riddle, Strine), neologisms (doable, ink-horn, doublespeak, muggle), pronunciation (garage), taboo and swear words (cunt, arse, bloody) – and a good many other topics. Along the way the reader is enlightened about the use of and to start sentences. (Perfectly acceptable.) The alternate spellings of jail/gaol. (Both are correct in British English and have been for centuries.) And the true origin of OK.

Of course you can read The Story of English in 100 Words from cover to cover. But it’s also a great book for dipping into and a fine source of trivial (and not so trivial) facts. Did you know, for example that the word matrix comes from William Tyndall’s 1525 translation of St Luke’s Gospel? Or that the difference in the two senses of billion (it means either 1,000,000,000 or 1,000,000,000,000) is down to a dispute between the British and the French, and that the British lost the argument and officially admitted defeat – in the House of Commons no less – in 1974?

15 centuries

And of course there are nods of acknowledgement to all the many languages that have contributed to English over its 15 centuries of development. That includes the obvious ones like Latin, French and Greek, but also many others. Including Old Norse – the parent of all the Scandinavian languages.

If you are interested in English specifically, or languages in general – where they come from, how they develop – and you’ve never read anything by David Crystal before, then The Story of English in 100 Words is a great introduction. And if you already admire David Crystal but have not yet read this book, you have a treat in store.

(Note: All the words in bold in the above are among the 100 head-words in the book.)


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

10 thoughts on “Crystal clear”

  1. Ought to have his works, it is the right years. but I couldn’t find him in the bookshelf. He can still be there, lurking among detective stories or childrens book.

  2. Always loved the richness of the English language. Fun quote:

    “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.” – James Nicoll

    • Fun quote, Lars! I think you can make a strong case for English being – at bottom – a pidgin language (though I’m not sure which side of the argument Crystal would take there). Elsewhere – not in this book – David Crystal is very interesting on the future of English – he sees it developing in two different ways, breaking up into more mutually incomprehensible local strains AND a developing into an international world English that is no longer the mother tongue of any one group.

    • Frågan om den verkliga innebörden av “billion” är en jag har kämpat med i engelska undervisning här i Sverige i åratal. Vissa äldre engelska lärare – som lärt sig brittisk engelska på 60-talet och höll på att undervisa den i 21-talet – var alltid den mest konservativa!

  3. Nu måste jag säga att jag blev nyfiken på den här författaren. Ord och ords ursprung är roliga. När vi bilar genom landet på väg söderöver funderar jag alltid över ortsnamn. Varför byar/städer har de namn det har

    • Namn och ursprunget till namn intresserar mig också. Min fru och jag körde runt Östergötland ett par år sedan med en kopia av ett ortnamnslexikon i bilen. Många mycket intressanta ortnamn – även om de flesta av dem visade sig komma från dialekt ord för “glänta” eller “hugge”! Jag misstänker att du kan se fram emot några framtida blogginlägg här behandlar ortnamn i den engelskspråkiga världen.

  4. Mycket intressant sätt att skriva. Ett bra tips 😉 Har aldrig hört talas om författaren, kanske för att jag inte läser så många engelska böcker. Tidigare gjorde jag det, men nu har jag högar av böcker på svenska att plöja igenom och de engelska får stå tillbaka ett tag.
    Kram Kim 🙂

    • Jag är säker på att engelsk litteratur inte har något emot att ta ett steg tillbaka för den svenska litteraturen på ditt skrivbord, Kim.
      Kram 🙂

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