Sunday, October 14, 2012

Wicked Pork Robot (The Story of English in 100 Words)

I'm pretty sure I heard about David Crystal's "The Story of English in 100 Words" via NPR and added it to my wish list right away. I received a copy for my birthday and read it over a couple of days. As someone who is a fan of trivia and etymology, and not put off in the least by deliberately shallow, poppish surveys of deep dense fields of study, I'm pretty much the target audience for this book. It's an aptly titled volume, too, since it doesn't claim to be more than it is. It's not "The Complete History of the English Language in 100 Words", obviously. "The Story of English" refers not just to the ever-evolving living language, but also English culture and general English-ness, tripping through the centuries from the earliest discovered inscribed artifacts to modern online slang. It's interesting, it's light and entertaining reading and it has a few great nuggets of knowledge which were new to me.

Which is not to say that it's entirely without flaws. Crystal has certain linguistic areas he's particularly fond of and tends to return to again and again (like Cockney rhyming slang), and other areas which are total blind spots. He makes a fair effort to include Americanisms alongside the Queen's English, but certain things I would take for granted pretty much elude him, such as urban African-American influences. For example, he takes some time to ponder the word "what" going all the way back to its origin as a rhetorical device poet-minstrels would use as an attention-getter, but he fails to bring the story full-circle in relation to every guest rap Lil John has ever dropped. Major missed opportunity.

Another whiff: Crystal traces the history of the word matrix. He leads by conceding, non-judgmentally, that if you ask anyone born after 1980 what they think of when they hear the word, they will say it's the futuristic computer network that imprisons humanity in the Keanu Reeves movie. (An assertion I do not deny in the slightest, of course.) Then he explains how the word was actually coined in an English translation of the Bible, to mean womb. Then it evolved to mean origin-place, then embedding location, then interconnected structure, and so on, eventually being co-opted by computer geeks and ripe for the picking for the Wachowskis. Again, though, here's an amazing opportunity to show things coming full-circle, because considering the way that the robots use human beings as biofuels in The Matrix, keeping them floating in dependent balls of goo, you can draw a straight line back to "womb" again. You can, but Crystal doesn't, and from that I can only conclude that he has heard there's this movie called The matrix and he knows the gist of it but he's never actually watched the film. Because when you see the scene where Neo wakes up ...

Goooooooood morning!

... it tends to stay with you.

And finally, mandatory deduction of points for including the word "chillax" which is terrible beyond reckoning.

But, these are all relatively minor quibbles, and I still think the book more than justifies its own existence. I'm happy to add it to my library. At the very least, I learned several words (bone-house! fopdoodle! mipela!) which I will probably be dropping irritatingly into conversation for years to come.

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