I just read about The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings in this article from The Economist and I’ve got to get a copy!
Hitchings is also the author of Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, which I also want to read after I first heard about it in Charles McGrath’s New York Times Book Review “A Man of Many Words” published December 4, 2005. William Grimes also reviewed it in the New York Times here; click here to read the first chapter of Defining the World.
Though I don’t know much about it, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of language — one thing I liked about Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? was learning how we use words derived from words the Romans used).
And as the review from The Economist mentions, the history of words is the history of culture:
All this is another way of writing history. The Arab etymologies of “saffron”, “crimson” and “sugar” speak of England’s medieval trade with the Arab world. We have “cheque” and “tariff” from this source too, plus “arithmetic” and “algorithm”—just as we have “etch” and “sketch” from the Dutch, musical terms from the Italians and philosophical ones from the Germans. French nuance and finesse are everywhere. At every stage, the book is about people and ideas on the move, about invasion, refugees, immigrants, traders, colonists and explorers.
I hope my local library has a copy!