In his new book The Story of English in 100 Words, the absurdly prolific David Crystal provides a unique answer to a question he poses: "How can we tell the story of the English language?"
To do so, Crystal compiles a "personal list" of 100 words, each chosen not only on its own merits but as the catalyst for a broader linguistic issue. Those 100 chapters — on words such as dude, ain't, bloody, bridegroom, mead, marry, gaggle, hello, unfriend, and cuckoo — allow Crystal to teach the history of English through 100 separate lenses. For example, the chapter on money leads to a discussion of idioms such as get your money's worth and money is the root of all evil. Then the chapter on music allows for a discussion of spelling variation, since that word has been spelled musiqe, musyque, and musyk, among other ways. With this clever format, Crystal is able to wander all over the lexical map, using each of his 100 words as a reference point and launching pad. The result is a highly readable, fascinating book that should please rabid wordaholics as well as casual lexicon-likers.
This book is unusual in that it spotlights terms — like and and what — that word books usually ignore. Though many word-lovers are only attracted to the most humorous or oddball words (I am guilty in this regard, which is why I'm a language columnist and not a lexicographer) the true work of lexicography involves looking at all the words, in all their uses and permutations, which isn't nearly as sexy as looking at exceptions and outliers alone. As Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster remarked on her terrific new blog Harmless Drudgery: "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to reading these 5,000 citations for the word 'get.'" Crystal's focus is similarly true to the all-encompassing, labor-intensive science of lexicography.
At the risk of sounding like the most cliché-ridden reviewer ever, there is something for everyone in 100 Words. I am uninterested and disinterested in the history of disinterested, but the chapter on that skunked word should grab the attention of fans and foes. I go higgledy-piggledy for words that use reduplication, so the chapter on dilly-dally and similar words was just my kind of mumbo-jumbo. Since I like math, I was pleased to learn that billion has long meant a million millions in England, in addition to the thousand-millions meaning I knew as a Yank. The chapter on schmooze and Yiddish clued me in to the fact that Joe Schmo is a form of schm-reduplication, which seems so obvious now. Other readers will have their own discoveries, and likely plenty of them. I found this book to be powerful reinforcement for concepts I already knew and an enjoyable introduction of ideas and facts I didn't.
Throughout, Crystal strikes a balance between minute linguistic details and overviews of broader lexical issues. Despite my lexilove, some word books try my patience when the details — however intriguing — are presented one after another with not enough reference to a larger point or concept. Crystal never falls into that pattern. Besides his weapons-grade research skills, Crystal is a sharp, understated writer who can surprise you with his wit in lines such as this from the chapter on Yiddish words like schmuck: "...if anyone said shpin, shtill, and shkin, we would think they had a speech defect — or were engaging in a bad imitation of Sean Connery."
I'm not sure the ultra-learned Crystal would appreciate the following compliment, but this is also a classic bathroom book. It might even be the ultimate bathroom book for a word aficionado. The short chapters make it easy to flip through and read non-linearly, which can be helpful in these low-attention-span times. I've reviewed a bunch of word books and read a boatload, but this one stands out for its scholarship, accessibility, and uniqueness.
In fact, Crystal continues to cement his place as the Michael Jordan of word mavens — or maybe the Isaac Asimov of word mavens — as he cranks out book after book of enlightening work. This one would be a tremendous gift for any word-loving friend, including yourself. While you're adding to your Crystal collection, think about picking up Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, published in 2008. That book is a potent demolisher of all those myths about texting that are commonly repeated and completely malarkey. When it comes to finding facts and pulverizing poppycock, Crystal is a word maven's best friend.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters