The Story Of English In 100 Words by David Crystal

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The Story Of English In 100 Words by David Crystal

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: 100 carefully selected words that tell us an awful lot about the English we speak today, this is a fun and fascinating book that would make a great gift too.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846684272

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David Crystal is a god when it comes to language. I’ve known that since I was quoting him during English A Level, since my university studies, since my TEFL days when students ask 'Why?' and you need an answer other than 'Because'. This is his new book, but you don’t need a degree in linguistics to find it fascinating, and in addition to the intriguing revelations and chummy writing style, it looks just lovely and would make a fab Christmas present.

Pegged as a unique history of the English language via the rude, the obscure and the downright surprising it certainly delivers on its promises. Focusing on 100 starter words (numbered so you don’t feel obliged to count them to check they’ve not made a mistake), you can trace the development of the language from the 5th century to present day in neat chronological order. I say ‘starter’ words because although each entry is titled singularly as roe or pork or dilly-dally, the descriptions and explanations expand to take in many other words associated with, or in some way derived from, said starter words. So, in the chapter entitled Debt, we segue into other words with mismatched spelling and pronunciation such as doubt and subtle, have a neat reference to Shakespeare, and conclude with evidence of a time when fault rhymed with thought.

This isn’t the sort of book I think you should read all in one go, because after a while it all gets blurry and less impressive. But read it a word or two at a time, maybe every night for 2 or 3 months, and you have a gift that just keeps on giving, with new and exciting revelations on every page. Each word in the contents has a mini description with it, which hints at the direction the chapter will take:

Hello – progress through technology

Yogurt – a choice of spelling

Brunch –a portmanteau word

This isn’t a dictionary, normal or etymological and there’s no guarantee that a particular word you’re interested in will be featured. In fact, with just 100 hand-picked ones, some of which aren’t massively used today, chances are it won’t be there. As Crystal says at the start, you might choose 100 completely different words to examine the history of the language, and that wouldn’t be wrong, but these are his ones. At the same time, the book is an excellent length, picking out the most unusual or entertaining examples. You could attempt it yourself by reading an old dictionary but you'd be wading through pages of bore for just a few gems - or you could benefit from the fact that Crystal has done this work for you.

For me as someone who only really began paying attention to language in the last decade, it was the most recent entries that captured my attention. As a Facebook fanatic I knew all about the concept of unfriending ...but it took this book to make me ponder why we don’t say ‘defriend’ and also to arm me with suitable ammunition: next time anyone complains about the state of modern English I will now be informed enough to drop in a ‘but of course words like ‘unfriend’ first appeared in Twelfth Night, so are hardly a new invention’.

The book made me question lots of things I’d never noticed before – like how funny a word CD-ROM is (pronounced half initials, half word), and ditto JPEG. And why we more often have dinner ladies serving school lunches, than lunch ladies serving school dinners, and why, regardless, you might have a lunch box but you’d never have a dinner box. I had no idea that Escalator was once a brand name that’s now fallen into generic use (like Hoover) or a dozen other things I gleaned from turning these pages.

For those who scoot straight to the dirty words in a dictionary, chapter 15 (Arse) offers some entertainment, though the biggest eye-opener was the description of arse over tip – let’s just say I always use it with a slightly different final consonant in the 3rd word. Chapter 24 (a taboo word) may also delight.

Overall, this is a highly entertaining and informative book that is bursting with all those things you never knew you never knew. It’s an easy read that’s lovely and informal without being irritatingly familiar, would make a wonderful stocking filler and it going straight to the linguistics section of my bookshelf for a nice long stay. You'd have to be a fopdoodle not to give it a look. Quite simply, a remarkable book - but what else would you expect from a god?

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book. We also have a review of The Story of Be by David Crystal.

How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Live or Die by David Crystal is one of this god's earlier creations, and also falls on the Bookbag's stellar list of Top Ten Books About Language

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Buy The Story Of English In 100 Words by David Crystal at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Story Of English In 100 Words by David Crystal at


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