Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English” as Want to Read:
The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English

3.67  ·  Rating Details  ·  384 Ratings  ·  81 Reviews
Words are essential to our everyday lives. An average person spends his or her day enveloped in conversations, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, directions, headlines, and more. But how often do we stop to think about the origins of the words we use? Have you ever thought about which words in English have been borrowed from Arabic, Dutch, or Portuguese? Try admiral, lan ...more
ebook, 448 pages
Published September 29th 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2008)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Secret Life of Words, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Secret Life of Words

This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,747)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
This should have been the perfect book for me - I'm a word lover, I love etymology, history, and social anthropology. Although I did enjoy reading it, I have to admit that I did have to force myself a bit to finish it. As many of the other reviews have noted, the book is exceedingly dry and has very little in the way of a narrative thread to connect the chapters. It feels more like a collection of articles in the same series, which becomes a bit tedious after a couple of hundred pages.

That said,
The book is very boring . It only tells us something about words . As you know , remembering words is the most uninteresting thing . I hate remembering words and anything about words . The dull book lacks interest!
May 11, 2009 Emily rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I tried.

I really did.

I wanted to like this book so badly. This seemed like the kind of book that would be right up my alley: history, literature, linguistics, fascinating minutiae about word origins and meanings. Exactly the kind of book I love.

But it was a battle to finish it.

It was difficult to find any through narrative in each chapter. It seemed like the author had discovered all of this interesting information during the course of his research and couldn't bear not to include a single piece
Jun 05, 2010 Chris rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, english, language
There are many ways to write human history. Most writers of history books tend to go the traditional way - following kings and queens, wars, revolutions and invasions. The history of the world is almost always written in military or political terms, and while that's certainly a valid way to do it, it's a little overdone. A truly creative historian might try to look at the progress of humankind through a different lens - the history of art, perhaps, or literature or science.

Hitchings has decided
Ben Babcock
These days, it is common to lament the spread and dominance of English, the way its uncouth touch corrupts and infects other languages. Yet it’s no secret that English is a prolific thief when it comes to words. Henry Hitchings explores this phenomenon in The Secret Life of Words, where he examines how the encounters between people who speak English and people who speak other languages have shaped and influenced English over its long history. Along the way, he spouts a veritable fountain of word ...more
Oct 07, 2012 darkseraphina rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What I life best about this is that the focus is on vocabulary, not grammar and syntax like so many histories of english seem to be. That and the connection between the impact of history and language was very interesting. Right now it is computers and technology that change our vocabulary; four hundred years ago the spice trade did the same thing. I especially loved the description of the word wars in the past, that the argument over 'true' english and the grammar purists is an old one.
Ryan Vaughan
Jul 30, 2012 Ryan Vaughan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: word-nerd
This book probably deserved less than four stars ,but I found it to be such a rich feast of information that I had to give it that extra star. I agree with the other reviewers that the book itself does not hang together. The author has a very digressive style and goes off on many tangents ,but I have a soft spot for books like that. I am curious to read his other "The Language Wars"
Feb 27, 2013 Mary marked it as long-term-reading-plan  ·  review of another edition
OMG, this is really hard to read.

Some of it IS really interesting, but it's killer trying to get through it. There aren't even any breaks within the chapters so you can take a breather and still know where you left off. Chapters are pages and pages of long historical facts - that ARE interesting, like I said, but just don't give you a chance to absorb anything...
Feb 12, 2009 Arlene rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Laborous feat but some interesting facts, the word nicotine stems from the French Ambassador on 1561 Jean Nicot when he brought tobacco back to Europe to help someone alleviate a migrane. Fun stuff!
Mark Beyer
Sep 02, 2012 Mark Beyer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked this book for its esoterica of etymology that takes you from the dawning of English before it was known as such, to the 21st century's fast-paced "changes" to the language. Likewise, Hitchings's idiosyncratic approach to the choices he's made to focus on (or even mention) allows for lots of fun. And that's his point -- as he's been making the same point for several books on language -- to make language fun, accessible, and a story worth knowing.


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story
Jan 31, 2012 Shelley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very satisfying read; educational, interesting and humourous, this book appealed to me because of my interest in the English language and teaching it. But it was much more than another history of the English language; it is a very wide and deep examination of events and trends (ancient and contemporary) that has led to the evolution of our language to the global powerhouse it is today, and continues to be. This book will add to any reader's appreciation of the English language (ALL the English ...more
Feb 17, 2009 Terry rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: students of lexicography
Recommended to Terry by: The Economist
Meh. There was no narrative. Each chapter was a collection of words and how they came about. References were neither superficial enough that themes and trends emerged nor deep enough that really neat nuggets emerged. I only made it about 250 pages into the book before going "what's the point?" and realizing I couldn't remember much of what was gone over. The information was poorly presented and some lists, section headers, cross references and references to deeper works except for some absolutel ...more
Jul 21, 2014 Kelsey rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I want to like this book very much but find it difficult to follow. It skips around and is rather dry. It does have the neat origins of a few words. I don't think I will ever forget mortgage comes from a word meaning death grip.
Aug 07, 2013 Colin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It's full of fascinating stuff. Perhaps a little too full - it's all a bit overwhelming and the organisational plan of the book falls short of actually being a structure.
Gwynne Harries

Enjoyable but other books on the same theme are for me more interesting such as Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
Jul 10, 2013 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great book for those who are interested in linguistics.
Sep 18, 2011 Emily rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Getting pummeled with fun facts but pacing plods sometimes.
Rachel Stevenson
This book is a history of English and also of England: the chapters are titled by a word first used in each period, from the Norman times (Invade) to the 20th century (Angst), via the Chaucerian era of scholarship (Volume), the Elizabethan age of exploration (Bravado) and Jacobean epoch of conquering (Powwow), the Civil war (Onslaught) and the Enlightenment (Connoisseur), the age of expansion and imperialism (Teapot) and the Victorian times (Ethos). It's also an account of writing things down, a ...more
Apr 17, 2014 Claudia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Hitchings had my heart the moment he quoted John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure.

It's excellent fun, but it is slow going. Not because it's dull, but because there's so much interesting material stuffed into each paragraph, and I needed time to absorb it. I had a similar reaction to Margaret Visser's The Rituals of Dinner, another marvelous book jam-crammed full of thought-provoking material; the difference was that a lot of Visser's information was new to me, while I know a bit more about Eng
Sep 09, 2009 Pierce rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Philological/lexicographic porn. And that's just the part about Greek words! I would definitely recommend this if you are studying for the GRE, even though you may find this book at once valuable and discouraging when Hitchings, who is a brilliant writer, demonstrates just how much of your own language you don't know. I would also really, really strongly recommend this to anyone who is interested in languages or communication generally.

A well-researched book could tell the story of the English l
Mar 22, 2012 Blue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I took a month to read Hitchings's book, I admit. I had a hard time going through the historical beginning. I put it aside for a week or so and read some other books. And then I returned to it at a point where we/he had reached 19th century, and it was a breeze after that. I just get a bit turned around with all the invasions and imperial aggressions in the earlier history, but this may not be an issue for many.

Hitchings is a good writer with a knack for words on his own right. The book certain
Allie Cauvel
Aug 29, 2011 Allie Cauvel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this book fascinating, however it is most definitly not a page-turner. The thang's dense. But if you're interested in what is essentially a brief summary of the origins and influences of the English language, this is a great place to go.

I learned all kinds of fun things, like a) what a calque is, b) the idea of inward borrowing (where words from the fringe of a language are adopted by the mainstream and given broader meaning), c) that the word malaria is from the italian mal-aria: bad a
Matthew Gatheringwater
If you are the sort of person who, as I sometimes do, wakes out of a sound sleep to wonder aloud just exactly what walnuts have to do with walls or some such similar question, then this is a reference book you will read with pleasure. The Secret Life of Words does not offer a continuous narrative, but is instead a collection of word histories and stories grouped into themed chapters such as "Saffron," "Teapot," or "Powwow." A handy index of words and phrases is in the back of the book.

In the boo
Aug 09, 2014 M.J. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
The Secret Life of Words is a history of English and, by extension, of those that speak the language. It chronicles the introduction of words from continental Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. No place in the world has been unaffected by the reach of English, but neither has English been untouched by them.

This book was both very fascinating and incredibly frustrating. The writing is very academic and I would easily class it as a very readable text, but I have a hard time recommending it t
Mar 08, 2009 Brian rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Words are not created in a vacuum, but are loaded with a socio-cultural, often intellectual, spiritual, political and/or psychological history, the study of which can lead one to scintillating, yet often tantalizing, discoveries. Each word, Hitchings suggests, has a story to tell, usually a rather complex one. Hence, one has to be assiduous, diligent, and curious enough to listen to that story. How this word was coined, in what contexts it was thereafter used, how its meaning may have changed, w ...more
Louis Profeta
Aug 30, 2011 Louis Profeta is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful book I found by accident, oh, but nothing is without reason I was told while practicing a new endeavor, poem writing.The book moves the word through many side roads and detours of history itself and is a fascinating journey for one that has always loved the power and clarity of certain words to define specifically what my mind was dishing out behind some veil. I learned that language was everything as great poets had told, each poem was a statement thought out after much, much thought ...more
This book is an insult to humanity. I remind my childhood and my happy days.It make me cry .I like it very much. It very helpful for me. It exactly tell me the what human is. The man have nose, eyes, mouth, legs, arms ,hands and feet.It is a very fantastic book.I say that sentence again ,I like it very much.
Jan 01, 2009 Lauren rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I love words. I love language and the history of language. I'm the type of person that looks for the dictionaries with the history of the English language in the front. Any one that shares this interest would enjoy reading this book. The author of this books suggests that we should wonder more often how our language (English)has formed. I kind of chuckled when I read this comment, because I have always been curious about the changes in meaning of words and the evolution of language. I have only ...more
Jan 03, 2009 Jane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I didn't even know I was waiting for this book most of my life. It explains so much. And yet most of the time it can't help but feel like each paragraph is just an etymological tangent, with each chapter focusing on the different origins of words in our "promiscuous" English language. This is what made it hard to read it more quickly. I felt like I was mostly absorbing little nuggets of information, rather than a substantial narrative of the English language. But it is perfect for anyone with a ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 58 59 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language
  • The Stories of English
  • Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms
  • Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of Their Usage Foul and Savory
  • Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling
  • The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More Than Some Antics
  • The English Language: A Historical Introduction
  • The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park
  • The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words
  • Prague Pictures: A Portrait of the City
  • The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language
  • Verbatim: From the bawdy to the sublime, the best writing on language for word lovers, grammar mavens, and armchair linguists
  • Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
  • Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language
  • Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn't Know You Didn't Know about Language and Languages
  • Bastard Tongues: A Trailblazing Linguist Finds Clues to Our Common Humanity in the World's Lowliest Languages
  • They Have a Word for It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases
  • Spellbound: The Surprising Origins and Astonishing Secrets of English Spelling
Henry Hitchings is the author of The Language Wars, The Secret Life of Words, Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?, and Defining the World. He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.
More about Henry Hitchings...

Share This Book

“for facts to be assiduously distinguished from opinions in a way apparently striking and bizarre to a speaker of, say, Arabic, Swedish or Polish. ‘I think’, ‘to the best of my knowledge’, ‘as far as I can tell’: such formulae are apt to bemuse speakers of these and many other languages. The notion of ‘hard facts’ is peculiar to English, and so, it seems, are many of our elaborate linguistic mechanisms for avoiding telling people what to do – our modes of inviting and offering and suggesting, which so strenuously avoid impinging on the autonomy of those we are addressing, and which can seem archaic or just plain weird to foreigners.30” 0 likes
“On loof, literally ‘on rudder’, was a Dutch phrase spoken by the captain of a vessel when he wanted to steer a course away from a hazard such as a reef. It became aloof, a word that extended this idea of avoidance and evasion.” 0 likes
More quotes…