We are often unaware of the unique and intriguing stories of the words we love. Thousands of our words have been so twisted, tangled, misused, and muddled over the centuries that their original meaning has been obscured. You'll be surprised to learn that table napkins were once made of and referred to as asbestos, that atom means uncuttable, that a cloud was once a hill, and that a companion is one who eats bread with you. Compiled over the years in his handwritten notebooks, acclaimed prose stylist Paul West offers us an album of treasures. The Secret Lives of Words is an "Antiques Road Show" of language, in which West chronicles the centuries-long travels of words across continents and through cultures. For word enthusiasts, speakers, writers, thinkers, and all readers, this volume recounting the intimate ancestry of language will enrich our understanding of and appreciation for the words we use every day.
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Paul West delights in the vicissitudes of language, and his enthusiasm is exquisitely catching. West particularly loves a good etymology (and who, deep down, doesn't?), and he's dedicated this newest of his 30-odd books to 500 of his favorite words and phrases, and the stories that go with them.
West tells a good tale, and he uses his gift to explain the derivation of words such as "Hottentot" and "humble pie," "patter," "conkers," and "nurdle." He starts with "abacus" and "ablative absolute" and works his magic alphabetically through his personal lexicon, ending with "zoot suit" and "zymurqist" (i.e., one who works with yeast, from the Greek zume for leaven and urqist for worker, as in metallurgist). Along the way, he provides definitions, usage, and derivations for "snite" (to blow one's nose without a tissue or handkerchief) and "scranny" (nuts, crazy, as in "driven scranny," from the Yorkshire dialect), as well as for more common words like "leotard" (named after James Léotard, the 19th-century French aerialist) and "decimate" (which means to kill one-tenth of, despite common misusage, and comes from the Roman practice of killing one of every 10 soldiers in times of mutiny). West's entry on "nun" explores the many food items containing that name--such as the Portuguese barriga de freira (nun's tummy) and the Neapolitan coscia de monaca (nun's thigh)--and his short essay on pumpernickel explains how (and why) the name derives from words meaning devil fart.
As fun a word book as has hit the market since Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, The Secret Lives of Words is selective instead of comprehensive, and therein lies some of its charm. It's informal. It's a taste. It's purely for the joy of the language. In his introduction, West reflects that "sadly, all words seem much the same to many people, like checkers, and they feel about them much as I do about Vivaldi's Four Seasons: all sound like Winter." Yet it's hard to imagine anyone skimming through the boondoggles and dead-cat bounces of The Secret Lives of Words and emerging without a joyous smile and a hunger for more. --Stephanie GoldAbout the Author:
Paul West, called "a national treasure," is the author of eighteen novels, most recently Life with Swan, and ten works of nonfiction. A recipient of numerous awards and honors, he has taught at Brown University, Cornell University, and the University of Arizona. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
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