The Story of English in 100 Words – David Crystal

There are loads of pop linguistics books. Every now and again, I get a recommendation for a new author and I am more than happy to oblige my curiosity. I don’t actually seem to tire of these books, but then again linguistics is my first academic love, and the fire of the interest will never burn out. More specifically, if I could go back in time and choose another field of study, historical linguistics focusing on the history of English might be a very good choice. All that being said, I don’t think all these books have the same virtue and value as all the others. To a certain extent, with the expertise I have already gained on the subject, I should at least be reading more advanced.

To say that The Story of English in 100 Words is sophomoric isn’t really met as an insult. It is certainly a very charming little book in its own way. Crystal writes well, and has found great example of the quirks of the English language, and uses the stories of these words to make some pretty interesting larger points about the language, and linguistics, themselves.

Simply put, this is a coffee table book1. You can pick it up, thumb through a section, and get it all read by the time the coffee has finished brewing. That isn’t a bad thing, but it certainly changed the reading dynamic significantly for those of us who like long extended arguments. In that respect, the book is really fine, as I have no problem with these brief bursts of knowledge. But the lack of a long consistent thread makes it a little weird, particularly when you consider the title. This is meant to be a book that is the story of English, and it really isn’t. It’s the story of 100 English words, and while each of those histories is rather interesting I don’t think it really described the ‘Story of English’, unless you are focusing on that story that, summed up in a sentence, simply says ‘the English language is complex and has many influences’. It is an accurate distillation, but it has reduced so far as to not be of much use. This isn’t really anything of a shock, as Crystal tells us exactly what it is he will be doing in the book’s preface.

But I think I get it. I have met enough people who are extremely conservative with their opinions about language and linguistics that I know first hand the importance of reinforcing this lesson. I truly have wished in the past that more people I knew would understand the linguistic lessons of this book. The questions is just about why I am still reading up on it.


1 My more uncouth friends would refer to this as a toilet book. What is wrong with people?

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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