English : everything explained in 100 words

Rating: 4 Stars

Exclusive interview with author David Crystal and a review of his book about the English Language

By Gabrielle Pantera


 “Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, did a radio series and book called The History of the World in 100 Objects, in which each object told a story that cumulatively added up to an account of world history,” says the Story of English in 100 Words author David Crystal. “I thought: if you can do it for objects, why not for language? Choose 100 words, each one telling part of the story of English, which together provide a succinct account of English vocabulary.”

Who knew that the English language could be so fascinating? In this enthralling new book, readers get to explore a language that is known the world over and how different events, cultures and languages influenced what replaced Latin as the universal language. This book is a great read, and an entertaining way to learn new words and amaze your friends with your knowledge.

A great example is the evolution of the word music. Over the course of history it’s been spelled over 40 different ways. Its origin is French in the 14th century and was spelled three different ways then: musiqe, musyque and musique. In 1755 Dr. Johnson published his dictionary. He didn’t think a c belonged at the end of any words so he used both the c and k. In the USA Noah Webster and others working on dictionaries dropped the k and after a few years it become the norm to spell it music.

Of the language’s incredible ability to adapt, Crystal wrote last year: “Looking down the complete list of 100, the thing that most strikes me is their diversity – a reflection of the colourful political and cultural history of the English-speaking peoples over the centuries. English speakers from all parts of the world have used their language like a vacuum cleaner, eagerly sucking in words from other languages whenever they find it useful to do so. And because of the way English has travelled around the globe, courtesy of its soldiers, sailors, traders and civil servants, several hundred languages have contributed to its lexical character.

“A feature of English that makes it different compared with all other languages is its global spread. Around a third of the world’s population – about two billion people – use English now, and one of the consequences has been the emergence of international dialects, each with its own local vocabulary. The process started when British and American English diverged, but it has continued since with many “new Englishes” in south and south-east Asia, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean and Africa. All have contributed many words to English, as shown by skunk and taffeta, dinkum and dude, mipela and lakh.

David Crystal is an honorary Professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. In 1995 he was awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English Language.

He was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland  and currently lives in Holyhead in Wales.


The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal. Hardcover, 288 pages, Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (March 27, 2012) Language: English, ISBN: 9781250003461 $22.99