The remarkable twists and turns of English words
A bit of blurb..
Our everyday language is full of surprises; its origins are stranger than you might think. Any word might be knocked and buffeted, subjected to twists and turns, expansions and contractions, happy and unhappy accidents. There are intriguing tales behind even the most familiar terms, and they can say as much about the present as they do the past.
Like all voracious readers I fell in love with the power of words once I was old enough to understand the importance of a good vocabulary. At primary school I had teachers who instilled the fundamentals of good grammar, punctuation and spelling, so that by the time I left primary school, aged eleven, my reading age was quite advanced.
My love of words has lasted throughout the whole of my life. I enjoy reading a good list, and to have a fascinating plethora of words all contained in one sparkly volume has been a real delight. The Accidental Dictionary focuses on the etymological origins of 100 words that are in common usage but whose meanings were once very different to what we know today. If you want to flip through the book at whim, which is what I did, then a really good content list allows you to choose at random the hidden gems which nestle on every page.
Take the original meaning of Flirt, which popped into the English language around the late Middle Ages as an onomatopoeic word meaning to flicker or flit, and then by the 1500s it had evolved into an entirely different connotation, that of, to sneer scornfully. It wasn’t until the mid-1600s that flirt came to be used more romantically in a term which described the way that ladies flirted coquettishly with their elaborate fans. However, I think my favourite evolution of the word has to come in 1755 when Samuel Johnson defined flirt in his Dictionary of English Language to mean ‘a pert young hussy’. Hence, by the mid-1800s, the term flirting had evolved into the word we are quite familiar with today.
The dictionary starts and ends with Affiliate and Zombie, with the other 98 words, in-between, being equally as absorbing. All are presented in fascinating randomness, and in a clear and concise way their origin meaning is emphasised along with the word’s fascinating evolution.
The Accidental Dictionary is a real hidden gem of a book which will sit comfortably on my book shelf just waiting patiently until I need to know the original meaning of a word.
Did you know that the original use of oaf was elf, or to be more precise, an impish hobgoblin?
Somehow "Oaf on the shelf" doesn’t have quite the same festive connotation, does it? Or maybe it does...I'll let you ponder that one!!
Best read with…a firkin of good English ale, strong and sweet…
Paul Anthony Jones is a writer, etymologist and language blogger. He is the author of several books on trivia and language. A piano teacher and musician , he lives in North East England.
Follow on Twitter @HaggardHawks
My thanks to Alison at Elliot & Thompson for my review copy of The Accidental Dictionary.