This is my review of The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal.
Inspired by a recent radio series on "The History of the World in One Hundred Objects , David Crystal has selected one hundred words, ranging widely over time and place to reflect the diversity of English. He readily concedes the arbitrary nature of his choice, and that everyone would choose a different hundred.
Entertaining as ever, Crystal's choice of words begins with "roe", one of the first words to be written down in Old English on the bone of a deer, and ends with "twittersphere", topical when the book went to print, but already superseded by more recent creations. You actually get more than 100 words, since he uses one to spark off a host of related ones. "Sudoku" is a cue for the Japanese words which have entered our language, such as "bonsai"; "Americanism" is a chance to compare different terms for the same thing on opposite sides of the Atlantic; "gaggle" is a collective noun prompting others, such as the intriguing "wisp of snipe"- Crystal suggests such words are the result of a group of medieval monks' parlour game on a cold evening.
He devotes separate chapters to basic words like "and" or "what", to those which have changed meaning like "wicked", to words coined by Shakespeare like "undeaf", lost words like "fopdoodle", those which are right or wrong according to the age like "ain't", "portmanteau" words like "brunch", taboo words and so on.
Crystal is no cultural snob, accepting "Jamaican English" on a par with the original, noting that the inhabitants of the British Isles form only a fraction of English speakers round the world. Similarly, he welcomes the dynamic nature of the language, accepting the inevitable demise of regional dialects along with the rise of "Essex speak" or "Hindi Cockney".
This book could make a good Christmas present, or enlighten younger readers whom Crystal suggests tend to have a smaller vocabulary simply through having lived a shorter time. However, I found the approach a bit too flibbertigibbetish – Crystal might approve this new adjective culled from a Middle English world, and the book will prove far too popular for him to mind my criticism that it is somewhat lightweight. I would have preferred it if he had concentrated on a more solid theme, such as the influence of foreign words on the English language.