Bodgery; Fopdoodle; Twittersphere

David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words

Profile Books, 288pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781846684272

reviewed by Gareth Carrol

To try and tell the story of such a ubiquitous language as English in a mere 100 words would seem rather a fool’s errand. How can one even begin to cover the breadth, diversity and longevity of English in such a short span? The widespread influence of other languages that can be seen throughout our everyday vocabulary, and the proliferation of slang, technospeak and general linguistic evolution would suggest it is an impossible task, but David Crystal manages, as he so often does, to deliver an erudite, balanced and really quite comprehensive snapshot of the English language in this fascinating little book.

Crystal shows his historical linguistic skill and a keen talent for exploration throughout The Story of English in 100 Words. The premise is simple: these are the 100 words which, in the opinion of the author, best summarise the journey that started with the first recorded English word (‘Roe’, discovered carved into the ankle bone of a deer that dates from the 5th century), through the trials and tribulations of Old and Middle English and the Scandinavian and Norman invasions, right up to the explosion of words and language that have come from globalisation and, importantly, the pervasive influence of the internet.

Crystal has selected his words based on their overall contributions to the evolution of English. These range from the simple but essential (the ‘and’, ‘out’ and ‘what’ that likely get very little consideration or attention from the everyday speaker but which nevertheless tell us a huge amount about the early development of English), to the more intriguing (‘bodgery’ and ‘fopdoodle’, both of which sadly fell out of common use a long time ago). The history of England as a nation is demonstrated through the legacy of words that are still familiar to a greater or lesser extent today, such as from old Celtic (‘brock’, which was common until the 16th century before it was superseded by our modern ‘badger’) and Norman French (‘pork’, representing the myriad of French items that have been preserved in the vocabulary of the kitchen; ‘chattels’, a legal term that helps explain the sometimes tortuous verbosity of our legal system; and ‘jail’, a word borrowed from French not once but twice, with its alternative spelling of ‘gaol’ still being used, albeit in the minority, in certain quarters today).

The stories of some of our most commonplace words are a real revelation. ‘Matrix’ today is common and has obvious connotations to most cinema-goers, but who would have thought that it dated back to 1525, and an early translation of the gospel of St Luke? The Bible, as one might expect, had a tremendous impact on the English language, as did the advent of printing and, of course, the great Bard, who according to some estimates introduced more than 1,500 words into the English language. Whether this is accurate, or whether he simply provided the first recorded usage is unimportant; Crystal chooses a particularly evocative example from Richard II – ‘undeaf’ – to illustrate the point that Shakespeare was never afraid to play with language on a scale that had an influence unlike anything seen before or since.

There are examples throughout of words that may seem at first glance rather odd choices, but the impressive aspect of each is not the particular entry per se, but the relevance of such a choice in a wider sense: ‘debt’ is a word which as native English speakers we spell without thinking about the illogical and rogue ‘b’, but Crystal uses it as a fine example of the linguistic turmoil that surrounded the rapid expansion of the language thanks to foreign loanwords in the 16th century. From old French dete or dette, the word had existed happily in English for 200 years before it was hijacked and forcibly returned to its Latinate root, after which the influence of the forms of debit and debitum was seen in the new, standardised spelling. The same was true of many words, and this process helps explain in part the curious dissociation between spelling and pronunciation that seems to trip up so many English novices.

The more modern words that Crystal examines are just as interesting, and demonstrate the global nature of English (‘Trek’, introduced from Africa, ‘Dinkum’ from Australia’), the influence of science and science fiction (‘robot’ derived from Czech and the now commonplace ‘DNA’ and ‘UFO’), and the bang up to date influx of technospeak (‘app’, which has surprisingly been around since 1985 and the ultra-modern ‘Twittersphere’), corporate speak (the example of ‘cherry-picking’ and other more objectionable jargon) and other modernisms that would make a good number of us cringe (‘chillax’ and ‘LOL’ being two such polarising examples).

Overall, it is the breadth of the material that makes this book a worthwhile read, and those with an interest in the origins of much of our more expressive and colourful language (even some of our choicer swearwords get the treatment) will find plenty of nuggets in here. Despite its obvious and understandable chronological design, it’s not necessarily a book to read through from start to finish, and dipping into it as and when you feel the desire to learn a bit more about a word that catches your eye is probably the best approach.

On a final note, I would take friendly issue with some of the word choices. The ‘eff word’ might just be interesting enough to warrant a mention, and ‘Google’, I would argue, would be much more deserving of its own entry than ‘Twittersphere’ (although admittedly ‘Google’ is discussed within other entries). Importantly, however, as Crystal notes in his preface, this book merely represents the 100 words he personally has chosen to represent his own story of the English language. Everyone else’s, as he says, would surely be different. His do a pretty good job.