Book of the Month
Thereby Hangs a Tale
Hundreds of stories of curious word origins

Publisher: Warner Paperback
Author: Charles Earle Funk
$8.70

ISBN 978-0060513382

Intermediate +


The past participle 'broke' and the broker who sells shares on the stockmarket are very closely related etymologically. Originally a broker was so called because he broke things. More particularly, he purchased wine barrels which he broke open at public events, and then sold the wine by the cup. So if you wanted wine at (for example) an archery festival, you looked for a broker. As economics grew more complicated, some people took to buying shares in large quantities and then breaking the shares into smaller lots which they sold to the public. The principle was the same, so the broker of wine barrels became a stockbroker. This pleasing connection of words is an example of one of hundreds of such stories in this little book. These stories are so interesting and intriguing that the book has been in print almost continuously from when it was first published in 1949 until today.

The book is exactly what it says on the cover. It has hundreds of stories of how words originated, and the odder the origin, the more the author takes pleasure in telling us about it. Some books of this sort arrange their words into groups, so that you have categories of word origins such as sport (did you know that 'jeopardy' was originally a chess term meaning a situation where winning or losing are equally possible?); but this book takes the old-fashioned approach. It goes straight from 'abet' to 'Yankee' in alphabetical order. Interestingly, the first Yankee was not even an American but a notorious Dutch pirate called Jan Kaas. The Dutch who settled in New York had a low opinion of the business practices of the English settlers further north, and called them a bunch of Jan Kaases - words which mutated to become how those in the north-east of the USA proudly describe themselves today. One of the strengths of the book is the way that it traces words back to often unlikely origins, and tells us much of society at the time the words were evolving. So an 'imp' was originally a small root of a tree. It came to mean the offspring of a noble family. Since the sons of the aristocracy were often badly-behaved the word came to mean a young demon, the meaning it still has today. Interestingly the book does not tells us the origin of 'funk' which means 'depression and bad temper' and comes from the old German word meaning 'to agitate'. The author undoubtedly looked this word up, as it is his own surname.
The book starts with a short preface explaining how different words came into the language at different times. We would for example expect most Latin-based words to have come into English with the Romans who were in the country for around 400 years. But in fact Latin left with the Roman legions and did not return until the Christian Church and Norman invasion brought the language back to a country which at that time spoke a version of German. After the preface, pages 14-327 of this 336 page book are given over to stories of word origins, with just a few pages at the back left for a short index. While this is a book which could usefully contain illustrations (for example of Silhouette - a penny-pinching French finance minister) there are none. Instead each page contains three or four word origins with a few paragraphs explaining each. No explanations are more than a page and few are even that long.

Who is this book for? One of the hardest tasks for a student of English is learning the huge vocabulary of the language. Anything that makes this job easier is welcome, and this book can be read for pleasure and education together. The format makes it easy to open the book when one has a free minute and dip into a few quick stories. One would expect to find this book in the bathroom, or in the rucksack of a student on the move. In my case it sits by my elbow when I watch television, and during commercuial breaks I learn about the origins of my language instead of the advantages of Wudzo Soap.

Verdict: A fun way to learn vocabulary
Assessment 8/10
 
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