Review of the Story of English in 100 words

According to David Crystal we can tell the story of the English language by either identifying trends within the key developmental periods such as Old English, Middle English, Modern English or by exploring several language items. He has created a list of words that present a specific trend in the language development in his book ‘the Story of English in 100 Words’. Take some time and think what would be your hundred words to illustrate the diversity of the English language.

At the beginning of the book there is a brief overview of the history of English and the author explains the diversity of English vocabulary and how words are coined. Crystal provides a few examples of words of the Germanic origin that come from ancient Britain, including the very first word that was written in the fifth century. He gives several examples of loanwords, literary and colloquial expressions. He also comments on regional varieties and non-standard spellings. 

Aren’t English words fascinating? They show us the structure of society, progress in science, technological advances and people’s attitude and mindsets. Let’s examine just a couple of interesting words that David Crystal handpicks in his comprehensive wordlist.

  • ROE
    • This is actually the first discovered word that was written in English.
    • ‘Raihan’ is likely to be a word of Scandinavian origin with six runic letters carved on a bone that was found in a cemetery.
    • The archaeologists think it was written before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in 449.
    • The word is spelt in the runic alphabet, which was used in northern Europe, and it reflects the way it was pronounced at the time.     
  • AND
    • This is a little word but the most frequently used.
    • This word has been used for joining sentences from the 8th century.
    • We also know the symbol ‘&’ that we often use to link ideas, the ‘ampersand’, which was originally ‘and per se and’.
  • LOAF
    • This is an interesting example as it shows the importance of ‘bread’ in society. The Anglo-Saxons used ‘heofenlic hlaf’, which means ‘heavenly bread’. Although the word has been used since the 9th century, the meaning of ‘shaped amount of bread’ became common a bit later.  
    • The word ‘hlaf’ turned up in quite a few interesting collocations and compounds. For example, a ‘hlaf-weard’ was used to identify the head of a household. It seems to be similar to what we now call a ‘bread-winner’.
    • The word ‘loaf’ was used in many different ways. One of the most recent examples is ‘use your loaf’ which came into use in the previous century, meaning ‘use your common sense’.
    • The word appeared at the beginning of the twentieth century when Gelett Burgess invented a book jacket for his publication with an accompanying text.
    • The text said, “When you’ve read this masterpiece, you’ll know what a book is” and the headline said, “Yes, this is a blurb!”.
    • This word was used both in America and Britain, meaning one thousand dollars or pounds respectively.
    • People used it to describe money and shortened it to ‘G’.
    • However, ‘K’ became a common abbreviation for ‘thousand’ as ‘kilobyte’ appeared in the eighties so ‘G’ came out of use.

To sum up, David Crystal is an expert on word craft. He produced a collection of one hundred words presented chronologically as they came into use. This wordbook is full of fascinating examples that the author explored from the historical and linguistic perspectives. Surprisingly, such a short story gives an overview of the history of English and origins of interesting lexical items so that readers can see some trees and the overall picture of the wood at the same time, which is really hard to do. I’d say it’s a great read so if you want to find out more, follow the link and get the book.