secret-life-of-words1By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 440 pages. $27.00

Reviewed by C. Bertelsen

In “The Secret Life of Words,” British author Henry Hitchings joins Bill Bryson (“The Mother Tongue”), Melvyn Bragg (“The Adventures of English”), and Robert McCrum (“The Story of English”) in seeking the bloodline of English, a language spoken by an estimated 350 million native speakers, and many others speaking it as a second language. To study the history of English is to delve into the history of the world and cultures grazed by political and economic power. And Hitchings’s version of the history of English renders a spellbinding story, full of all the drama of a well-orchestrated film or a gripping who-dunnit.

Hard as it is to believe that a linguistically prone book could hold a reader’s attention like a murder mystery, in this case it’s true. Every page reflects the “borrowing” of “loan words.” (Hitchings quips that English doesn’t really “borrow” words, because they’ll never be given back!) And the stories and reasons behind those words slipping into the English lexicon sometimes read like “The Arabian Nights” or G. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series.

Take food words. Because of trade during the Middle Ages, words practically leapt into the fledgling English language. Hitchings thrills to the musicality of Arabic words, “Arabic words for foodstuffs, alluringly simple, also gained currency. “Naranj” was the Sanskrit word for the citrus tree and its glowing fruit; in Arabic, it kept this form, but in English ‘a naranj’ soon mutated into ‘an orange.’ Other names of fruits and vegetables include lime (‘limah’), endive (‘hindab’), artichoke (‘al-kharshuf’), which was introduced to England in the reign of Henry VIII, and possibly spinach (which may ultimately have been derived from the Arabic ‘isfanaj’.” Nearly every the page finds this or that food word being added as people discovered each others’ cooking.

Sea-faring words, law and legal words, war words, farming words – Hitchings incorporates them all, and more. He shows how the English language mirrors the numerous bitter conflicts between France and English, the rivalry between Native Americans and American settlers, and the nuances of British colonialism in the Far East, how clashes of cultures create new words and encourage adoption of others.

Hitchings ends this delightful book with an excellent ‘if-you-want-to-read-more” bibliography and a seventeen-page special “Index of Words and Terms” scrutinized in the text. If history and love of language float your boat, “The Secret History of Words” will set you schooning through this remarkable story of an increasingly global language, ever-morphing into something new. As Hitchings concludes, “As long as there are groups on the move, languages will change. Such groups at present include migrant labourers, students, troops and aid workers, refugees, tourists and businesspeople. Think, for a moment of their influence: the ideas they propagate, the pleasures they share, the drama they witness, the opportunities they create exploit or implore.”

© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Publlished in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 16, 2008.