Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto

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Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto

Category: Children's Non-Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: What it says on the tin plus more - a Plain English schools reference dictionary of word origins, plus some well-chosen and interesting feature topics. For all lovers of words, not just schoolchildren.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: May 2009
Publisher: OUP Oxford
ISBN: 0199112215

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Words rock, right? Lessons rock less. Getting picked up on your spelling or grammar - comma splice? Greengrocers apostrophe's? Who cares? - doesn't rock at all. The further we go on with this list, the less we remember the first item on it. Words rock. And the most sexiful thing about words is that more we know about them, the better we can use (and sometimes misuse) them to get our points across. Words have histories. Their meanings change over time, as do their spellings. New words come into use - I'm currently promoting sexiful, in case you hadn't noticed - and old ones fall by the wayside and become obsolete.

The Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins does pretty much what it says on the tin. Look up a word, and it will tell you where it came from. There aren't as many entries as there are in a standard dictionary, but there are more than enough to stand you in good stead when investigating words and where they came from. The etymologies are all in good, accessible Plain English and they are all tremendously interesting. Here's one:

incubate When a bird incubates its eggs, it sits on them to keep them warm, so that they'll hatch. And 'sitting', or rather 'lying' is where the word incubate started out. It comes from Latin incubare, meaing literally 'to lie on something', which was based on cubare, meaning 'to lie'. Other English words from cubare include concubine 'a woman who lives with a man in addition to his wife or wives', which means literally 'someone who lies down with another', and cubicle, literally 'a little place for lying down in'.

If you think that is interesting - and I really, really do - then you'll find this book wonderful to read and not just to refer to on a whim every so often. There's a potted history of English too, and a central section with all sorts of mini features on groups of word origins, and the various ways in which English words have formed, including folk etymologies, back formations and blends. It's beautifully presented and it definitely makes words cool.

More than 50,000 new words have established themselves in the English language since 1960 - byte, glitzy, quango, email, chav and podcast to name but a few. Language lives. It's vital and it's energetic and it's in constant flux. You can use it better if you understand this and you know a little bit about its evolution. Communicating well isn't about grammatical pedantry or slavish adherence to outdated rules - it's about understanding the flexibility - and yes, the history - of the words you're using.

If you like words, you'll love the Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins.

My thanks to the nice people at OUP for sending the book.

Science fans will love Moon: Science, History, and Mystery by Stewart Ross, a handsomely produced reference book if ever we saw one. The little squiggles that go near words but aren't anywhere near as interesting or good as words, even when spliced, are humorously covered in the children's version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Buy Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Oxford School Dictionary of Word Origins (2009) by John Ayto at Amazon.com.


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