Book Review: The Unexpected Evolution Of Language

The Unexpected Evolution Of Language:  Discover The Surprising Etymology Of Everyday Words, by Justin Cord Hayes

Why would the evolution of language be unexpected to anyone who has a remote idea of the history of words.  When we reflect upon the ways that the self-appointed cool people of our age, as well as those who wish to disguise their own immoral behavior and to reframe it, or those who wish to come up with less unpleasant ways of dealing with unpleasant realities, we can see the way that language changes over time, and not always very much time.  The accidental phenomenon of the name of Watergate hotel being the location of the scandal that forced President Nixon to resign has led to any potential political scandal being affixed with a -gate, whether it deserves it or not, be it Nannygate or Whitewatergate and so on and so forth.  This book does not even discuss that sort of linguistic evolution, but rather the type that makes “cool” describe something that is culturally popular for a while, but is then rejected when the term is used by people who are themselves seen as hopelessly uncool.  Be that as it may, this book has a lot to offer in its word histories.

After a short introduction that states the obvious, namely that English is a mutt of a language that has been formed from a hodge-podge of elements ranging from the native development of Anglo-Saxon, elements added by contact and conquest involving Scandinavian, Celtic, and Norman French, Greek and Latin influences (often through French), and the remnants of imperialist ventures, the author moves straight into an alphabetically organized set of words whose meanings have changed over time from Old English or Middle English to contemporary use.  Each word is noted with its original definition and changed one and there is a short essay that discusses the process by which it happened.  This includes cases where there are multiple meanings as well as some discussion of the original word and its root meaning.  The book is also full of little sidebars that provide humorous information that may relate to a word in question, like some quotes on courage as well as a note on farce and slapstick.  Some of the words relate to each other and are cross-referenced accordingly as well.  The book is almost 250 pages in length and closes with a bibliography for further reading.

Perhaps this book was meant for those who do not come to it with a great deal of existing interest and/or knowledge in etymology.  After all, anyone who understands languages and their change over time [1] will find much to appreciate here as well.  There are a variety of reasons why the meanings of words change over time.  Some of them are based with larger shifts in culture and technology, so that a word that is in danger of becoming obsolete is instead used in a formerly secondary sense.  Sometimes words change meaning because of errors resulting from proximity to other words whose meanings are confused and intermingled.  At times irony and the influence of popular culture shifts the way that words are used and how they are defined.  That is, as I noted above, a major aspect of contemporary language shifts.  Whatever the reason for a particular shift in meaning, though, it is intriguing to see the origin of words and how and why those meanings do not remain constant over time.  And such a book is one whose relevance is likely to be longlasting, because so long as people will seek to distinguish their word use from the past or seek to use words in new senses to deal with new realities or approaches, there will be more examples of changing language to report on as well.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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