Books : reviews

Anne Curzan.
The Secret Life of Words: English words and their origins.
Great Courses. 2012

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 30 May 2023

This is the course guidebook that accompanies the 36 lecture “Great Course” of the same name. It is essentially an abbreviated transcript of each 30 minute lecture, a few pictures, some suggested reading, and a few questions to think about. (I watched the lectures, which is what I am reviewing here, and am using the book simply as an aide-memoire.)

English has a large vocabulary, and words have entered through multiple paths over the years: from Anglo-Saxon, original Latin, French, Medieval Latin with some Greek roots, and more. There's a lot of fun to be had learning how and why the vocabulary has changed, and is still changing.

Curzan takes both an historical approach, showing how the vocabulary has grown, and a topic-based approach, looking at more specialised language in various domains. She occasionally jokes about it being easy for this to turn into just a list of words, and occasionally it does to some degree. But on the whole this is an engaging and informative overview of the origins and quirks of English vocabulary.