I received The Secret Life of Words as a Christmas present from my brother (fellow bibliophile), who at time compared it favorably to Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. It wasn’t until after it had arrived, however, that he admitted he had recently read Bryson’s Made in America and found it a more engaging read than this piece by Hitchings.
All three are excellent books, and by and large try to accomplish different goals.
Bryson is by nature a storyteller: his travel writing takes the form of either his experiences or anecdotes he learned in the preparation of execution of those experiences. Similarly, his books on language rely heavily on anecdote1 and revel in miscellany and esotery. Henry Hitchings’ The Secret Life of Words, by contrast, is a decidedly more academic affair. Make no mistake: it is not the dry affair of Baugh’s A History of the English Language, but it is nonetheless imbued with less bemusement and lightness of feet than the rest of the class.
What’s important to realize is that the study of linguistics is almost invariably the study of history, anthropology, &c. Hitchings takes great pains to make clear that the flux of language—and especially one as permeable as English—is the product of every other force which affects the speaking culture. To some degree, the logical progression of Hitchings’ book is a testament to that: though there is general chronological trend from the historical to the recent, each chapter is begun with a vocabulary word which forms the framework for that chapter. For instance, the chapter entitled “Teapot” is about the golden year of the British Empire in Asia… along with the tea and opium and necessary cultural/linguistic chaos. I have a sneaking suspicion that the book’s explicit purpose (language) is almost secondary to its implied pursuit—that of history, cultural conflict, and the ramifications of English-speaking interaction with other cultures.
In this, however, Hitchings occasionally veers dangerously close to the pedantic: midway through a chapter, etymologies (which I think is one strength that Hitchings has over Bryson) have disappeared and he spends several paragraphs on a particular historical tangent. Then, too, the latter portions of the book begin to have less to do with explaining etymology and more to do cataloging the (a) calques or direct borrowings from other languages and (b) compound words or phrases, of which Modern English has seen a surfeit of. Which is appropriate, I suppose, given its Germanic heritage. I noted a distinct sense of distaste in Hitchings’ chapter about the modern: business and the internet and politics and their effect on the language seemed to arouse his ire, though he hid it well behind the descriptivist’s resolute dispassion.
Ultimately? I applaud both Hitchings’ very thorough research and his insistence upon tracing the origins of a word beyond the mere line of etymological succession2 and into the realm of context and historicity. I think, however, that his approach was a bit scattershot, reaching out in too many directions at once for the major expository thread to maintain its importance. Despite that criticism, The Secret Life of Words is a treasure trove of linguistic nuggets and historical import.