Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stories Behind Words

Stories Behind Words: The Origins and Histories of 285 English Words
© 1986 Peter Limburg
288 pages

I have long held an interest in etymology and the history of language, thus this book’s interest to me.  Author Peter Limburg expounds upon the meanings and derivations of hundreds of words in 285 essays sorted into seven general categories. The book’s table of contents -- displayed on the main cover, incidentally, which you may view by clicking the preview image above --  is not quite complete, as Limburg typically discusses similar words that branch off from the topic in the same essay. For instance, the essay “To Badger” gives not only the meaning and history of that phrase, but discusses other words derived from the behavior or perceptions of animals.

The essays tend toward the thorough, with only a few exceptions. Even though I’m a “word nerd” and a student of history, I found here much to inform. I learned why the US legislature is a “Congress” and not a “Parliament” for instance -- and that cathedrals are named after the residing bishop’s throne, the cathedra.  Uncomfortably, there are no citations or references given -- a potential problem for me given that I’ve not heard of some of Limburg’s opinions and would like confirmation. For example, he posits that the medieval church’s chief problem with witchcraft was that it amounted to heresy: only later was the accusation of witchcraft used as a weapon against  people.  Limburg’s tone is conversationally informal: he likes to end the essays with dry humor or a pun, which is appropriate for a book of word-history. My favorite: when Limburg ends the essay on brassieres, he first comments on the changing perception of bras in the modern age and then notes that 'men will be watching future developments with great interest.'

All told, this book of essays on the history of words made for an enjoyable and informing read.  Those interested in the subject -- particularly in the words listed in the table of the contents -- will probably find this book both useful and entertaining.

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