The Story of English (4XY)

The Story of English, by Mario Pei (this edition from 1952), was an interesting, but really long, tour of the English language. From its Anglo-Saxon roots, up through its long period of reckless appropriation of words from essentially any source.

Some of the great metaphors from Beowulf are listed by way of defending the Anglo-Saxon literature from charges of un-sophistication, grimness, and lack of thought-progression, and I found them delightful. The sea is called the "road of whales" or "playground of the winds," and woman the "ornament of the home."

Apparently it was estimated that Shakespeare used a lexicon of about twenty thousand words in his works. Fewer than six thousand appear in the King James version of the Bible. Milton apparently reached eleven thousand. Some interesting scale: comprehensive dictionaries of Anglo-Saxon fall short of fifty thousand words. Not a whole lot! In the 1950s, it was thought that only about twenty thousand English words were in widespread and consistent use... of them, about twenty percent were of Anglo-Saxon origin ,and about sixty (!) percent of Latin, Greek, or French origin!

The word "remacadamized" (basically this means to repave, in a particular way) can be broken down through its prefixes, suffixes and whatnots, and through that process be revealed to be of Latin-Celtic-Hebrew-Greek-English origin. (re-, Mc-, Adam, -ize, -ed, respectively). Similarly, "Torpenhow Hill," a place near Plymouth (in England), means "Hillhillhill Hill."

To return to a hobbyhorse of mine-the personal names of Puritans-here is a doozy: If-Christ-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barebone. For convenience, he was known as Damned Barebone. In the same vein, a man named Breech Loading Cannon fought in the Revolution, and a fellow named Genuine English Tweed in the war of 1812.

In 1646, St. Isaas Jogues related that the 500 souls of (what would be come) New York City spoke eighteen different languages.

Interestingly, the author held out hope in the 1950s, that professionalization of school teachers would not yield a persistent jargon that would find its way into the popular discourse. "Despite PTA meetings and much drum-beating on the part of 'progressive' educators, there seems to be little likelihood that this class jargon wil to any great extent infiltrate the general language." Some examples of the dreaded pedageese? Motivation, frustration, ambivalence, workshop, and K-9.

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