From 'App' To 'Tea': English Examined In '100 Words' Linguist David Crystal believes every word has a story to tell, even the ones as commonplace as "and." In The Story of English in 100 Words, he compiles a collection of words — classic words like "tea" and new words like "app" — that explain how the English language has evolved.
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From 'App' To 'Tea': English Examined In '100 Words'

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From 'App' To 'Tea': English Examined In '100 Words'

From 'App' To 'Tea': English Examined In '100 Words'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Linguist David Crystal describes the English language as a vacuum cleaner: Our speakers merrily swipe some words from other languages, make others up, adopt some because they're cool and others because they sound classy.

Take the word debt, for example, originally from the French, but that silent B inserted as a reference to ancient Latin at a moment when many English speakers though the language needed elevation. Linguist David Crystal says there's a story behind each and every word, even one as commonplace as and.

And in a new book, he tells the story of the English language in 100 select words. He acknowledges that others could easily propose a different list. So what's one word you think tells an important story about the English language? Please note this is a rebroadcast, we're not going to be able to take any new calls today.

Later in the program, a son flies off to war, a father wants answers from Washington. But first, David Crystal joins us from his home in Holyhead in North Wales. His latest book is "The Story of English in 100 Words," and David Crystal, nice to have you back on the program.

DAVID CRYSTAL: Neal, it's a delight to be with you again.

CONAN: And a word as simple and commonplace as and?


CRYSTAL: Absolutely. You know, when you're asked this question, 100 words to sum up the English language, well, I mean, the idea of course didn't come from language as such. It started when the director of the British Museum over here, a man called Neil MacGregor, another Neil, he wrote a book and did a radio series called "The History of the World in 100 Objects."

And his idea was that if you could choose 100 objects, each of which told a story about the history of everything, put them all together, you get the history of the world. And I thought: Well, I wonder if you could do for language, if you could find 100 words, each of which tells an individual story and then put them all together, and you get the history of the language.

Now a word like and, you see, one of the most frequently occurring words in the language, you've got to have a strand that represents them, too.

CONAN: So these connective words, these are, well, functional words. They're kind of grammatical words.

CRYSTAL: Yes, that's right, all these terms you've just used are out there, function words, grammatical words. You know, when you look at word books, any of your listeners who go into a bookstore will see word books all over the place, and most of them deal with the really sort of punchy, meaty words in the language, you know, the longer words, the fascinating words.

And these poor little words like and and the and of, you know, they don't get any press at all, and this is a great shame because without them, we have no syntax, we have no grammar, the whole language falls apart. You can't communicate just by, you know, using a word. People say: What do you mean? Put it in a sentence, and then it'll make sense.

And so you've got to give amount of page distance to these little words if you're going to write a real story of the language.

CONAN: And interestingly enough, you also point out that, well, we tend to think of contractions and abbreviations as modern inventions. Well, you go all the way back to and.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, and, one of the first abbreviated forms in the language. If you look at an old Anglo-Saxon manuscript, you know, 700, 800, 900 A.D., and you see the way the scribe has written things out, one of the things you'll notice straight away, even if you don't know any Old English at all, is you'll see these little signs like a seven, like the number seven, all over the place.

And that was the abbreviation for the word and in those days. It's a bit like an early attempt at shorthand, and you can see why they did it because if you're writing something out, and you want to get as many things onto the line as possible, you take some of these frequent words and just shorten them a little bit, and the writing becomes more efficient as a result.

CONAN: So our language comes originally from the German, and, well, there's a word for and in German, too, a very similar word, unt.

CRYSTAL: Yes, indeed. Now, it comes from the German. Now, this is where the story really starts, of course, because we've got over 1,000 years of English vocabulary history here. And if you went through the entire biggest dictionaries in the language, like Webster and Oxford and so on, what you'd find is that something like 80 percent of the vocabulary in English doesn't come from Germanic at all.

And that's because - you mentioned it earlier on - English has been this vacuum cleaner of a language because of its history meeting up with the Romans and then the Danes, the Vikings and then the French and then the Renaissance with all the Latin and Greek and Hebrew in the background.

Every language that English has come into contact with, it's pinched some of the words, thousands and thousands of words in many cases, and something like 600 languages have loaned or given words to English over the past 1,000 years. And so again, a word book has got to represent those trends, too.

CONAN: And as we go through this history, it's interesting, the second book on your list, and you do it in roughly chronological order, but the second book - the second word on your list is lea, meaning a meadow. It's a word we generally encounter in old poetry.

CRYSTAL: Yes, that's right, L-E-A, lea. And you - you wouldn't think twice about that one because yes, it's a poetic word, isn't it. You know, Thomas Grey's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, the curfew tolls the knell of parting day, the lowing her winds slowly o'er the lea, L-E-A, a word for a meadow or a, you know, green field and so on, hardy ever used. So you think what's that doing in the book.

Well, of course, it's a trick there, a bit of a cheat because we actually encounter the L-E-A word much more frequently than anybody thinks because it turns out to be a place-name ending. In this country, in Britain, in the early years, huge numbers of place names ended in L-Y because the word lea in those days simply meant a clearing, a space.

Britain was forested, trees everywhere, and if you wanted to settle in a part of the country, you'd clear the trees away, make yourself a clearing, it was a called a lea, a (unintelligible) it would have been said in those days, and you're - depending on who you were, if somebody called Neal had made a clearing in a forest, they would call it Neal's lea, so Nealey or something like that.

And so you get lots of words like Burnley(ph) and Ashley(ph) and Rowley(ph) and Langley(ph) and Moorly(ph) and Dingly(ph) and so on. And a fair number of them came across to the United States eventually, too.

CONAN: Where they were borrowed because they were borrowing place names, not necessarily because there was a clearing, and the place next to Oakland they decided to call Berkeley.

CRYSTAL: I guess so.


CRYSTAL: I don't know, there may have been a forest at once upon a time.

CONAN: Once upon a time. Let's see if we can get some callers in on this conversation. Take a word that you think says something important about the history of the English language, 800-989-8255. We'll start with Hillary(ph), Hillary on the line with us from Phoenix.


CONAN: Hi, go ahead please.

HILLARY: Well, the word I chose was liberty, and I chose that one because it just has such a worldwide meaning. It doesn't really change in other languages. I speak quite a few languages, and it just has such an impact on meaning. It can be used in different words in different ways, like liberation and liberate.

And it just means such an empowering thing throughout our history to liberate, you know, liberate the Jews, to liberate, you know, the women vote, to give liberty to America when they got away from the British colonies, to liberate the people of France during the Revolutionary War. And it just doesn't have the same powerful wording as freedom. Freedom doesn't mean the same thing.

And so I think it just plays such a powerful role in the history of just humanity.

CONAN: And David Crystal, she reminds us of (speaking foreign language). Is this from the French?

CRYSTAL: Yes, absolutely, well, Latin originally, of course. But it's interesting, what Hillary's done is she's picked up two words side by side, freedom and liberty, and she senses an important difference between them. Now historically, of course, there is this big difference. Freedom is an Old English, Germanic word, (speaking foreign language), and liberty is the Latin French word.

Now, this tells its own story, and in my book, I've got another example, which is very similar. The story is how English picks up words in parallel, as it were, and uses them for different purposes.

So if I change the example a little bit and take something like kingly, royal and regal, they all mean roughly the same thing, but of course kingly is a Germanic word, royal is a French word and regal is a very Latin word. And they all have different feelings.

HILLARY: (Unintelligible) when I was studying medicine was that we had to learn different root words for our pharmacology and anatomy, and we had to break down the words, like histological, so is like the study of - I mean histo is a story, and then ology is the study of.

CRYSTAL: That's right, and most of those medical words would have come from Latin and Greek, wouldn't they?

HILLARY: Yeah, and if you look at the words, you can break it down, and so many people don't just (unintelligible) and break it down into the roots and realize what the words if they just sat down and broke it apart. And there's so much history just looking at the word without ever knowing that it came from such an old language and such old history, and it's really kind of sad that people are losing that.

CRYSTAL: Absolutely.

CONAN: Hillary, thanks very much for the call. But David Crystal, if you could peruse - pursue those - that triplet for us just a little bit and the differences and how they evolved between regal and royal and kingly.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right. I mean, kingly comes in first. It's a good, old Anglo-Saxon word, Germanic word, king, based on king. And then the French come along, and they decide that they want a rather more elegant word for their rulers, you see. A king was a bit too Anglo-Saxon for them, a bit too down-to-Earth, and royalty is a little more up-market. And so the term royal came into the language.

And then a little later, when the classicists came along and looked at Latin and Greek and found another word which meant more or less the same thing, and they chose regal. Now, you'd think three words mean the same thing more or less, but of course over the course of time, they go in different directions.

So things that are royal are not necessarily things that are regal, and when you think of the way the words are used in the English language, you find that actually royal is used in one sort of direction - I mean we have the Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, in Britain, we don't have a Regal Shakespeare Company, do we?

CONAN: Some would say we do, but there's a comment on it.

CRYSTAL: Exactly, and as soon as you say that, Neal, you see, you make the joke. And that's the point. Once we've got two words, and one is normal and the other is abnormal, soon as you switch them, you've got a humorous point to be made or an ironic point, and that's of course how the language grows, by allowing these nuances of meaning to develop.

CONAN: But I haven't heard anybody use kingly all that much lately.

CRYSTAL: No, I suppose kingly - and queenly, of course, is the opposite one - that they've fallen out of use a little bit, really, over the last 100 years or so, probably because the terms that subsume both turn out to be rather more useful.

CONAN: We're talking with David Crystal about his new book, "The Story of English in 100 Words." Which words do you think tells a meaningful story about the English language? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. To my guest, David Crystal, language is made up of special words packed with extra meaning, words that reveal something about the culture and priorities of a people. He picked 100 words that tell the story of the English language for his new book that range from the common to the current to the, well, silly like fopdoodle, a lost word from the 17th century.

A mix of the words fop and doodle, he says it means a fool twice over. You can read more about lost words and how ladies in white dresses linked up with stablehands in the word bridegroom in an excerpt from "The Story of English in 100 Words" at our website. Just go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So to the linguists and armchair word lovers in our audience, what's one word you think tells a great story about the English language? David Crystal is our guest. He joins us from Wales, and let's go to Victor(ph), Victor with us from Madison.

VICTOR: Hello, thanks for the show, it's great.

CONAN: Thank you.

VICTOR: Mr. Crystal, the word that I was wondering about was the word cow.

CRYSTAL: Cow as in C-O-W?

VICTOR: C-O-W, yes, and I was thinking of it in contrast to the word beef.

CRYSTAL: Oh right, yeah. Well, that's another one of these pairs of words that has grown up - cow is a nice, good, old Anglo-Saxon word, you know, along with pig and all of these others, and beef, boeuf, is of course a Romance word, comes along in the early Middle Ages, when the French arrived.

And one of the big things that the French did is take the language up-market, really. The French were culturally miles ahead of the Anglo-Saxons, or so they though, and they introduced into the language, you know, hundreds, well actually thousands of new words. Something like 40,000 or 50,000 new words come in from French over the Middle English period.

And one of the early areas of development were the food words. So this is the point in time where you get, you know, beef coming along, alongside cow and pork coming in alongside pig and all the other words that are related to food: mutton and sheep, you know, veal, all of these. They all came in at more or less the same time, fascinating development.

CONAN: Illustrate the...

VICTOR: About 1066 or so.

CONAN: Well thereafter.

CRYSTAL: A bit later than that, about 1200.

VICTOR: True enough.

CONAN: But in any case, the function of class in the English language were the English, the good, strong, old Anglo-Saxon words are somehow relegated to, well, being vulgar.

CRYSTAL: Yes, they are, or being ordinary or not being classy enough, not being up-market, not being cool, I suppose we'd say these days. I mean, of course, to the ordinary person in the street, the old words were cool enough, and a lot of the words did sort of fight each other for a while before they became established.

But, you know, the history of language is the history of society and that means the history of class as much as anything else, and that's always ultimately the reason why some words win and some words lose.

CONAN: Victor, thanks very much for the call.

VICTOR: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Roger(ph) in Phoenix: My nominee would be that most globally used American-associated phrase OK. I've heard derivations from Native American languages to Wolof from West Africa.

CRYSTAL: OK, yes, well, we're in total agreement about that because that's one of my 100 words, as well. Yes, OK, I love OK, and one of the reasons why I love it is because of the point that Roger has made, and that is that it has had so many guesses for its origins. I stopped counting at 50, I have to say.


CRYSTAL: And thought oh well, I'll just choose some of the main ones for discussion in the book. Well, I think we do now know where OK comes from. There was a great American lexicographer called Allen Walker Reed(ph) who many years ago did a huge study and found out that the word OK first appeared in the 1830s, I think it was 1839, in a newspaper in Boston because at the time, there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters.

And OK came at that point in time from oll korrect, you know, O-L-L for all and K-O-R-R-E-C-T for correct. Now, there were dozens of other abbreviations in the Boston newspaper at the time, and most of them have disappeared, but this one didn't. OK stayed. And the reason is it had a completely fresh boost of life the following year, when it began to be used as a slogan in the U.S. elections in 1840.

President Martin Van Buren came from Kinderhook in New York state, and Old Kinderhook, OK, became his sort of nickname, and his supporters used to go out onto the streets and say, you know, OK, this is their slogan, you know, down with the Whigs, boys, OK, and so on.


CRYSTAL: So the combination of the two things, the original jokey thing from Boston plus this political slogan, kept the word alive and made it what we know it is today.

CONAN: Well, let me play for you an example of - well, this is jargon or slang from a somewhat later generation. Let's listen to a little bit of "Valley Girl."


MOON UNIT ZAPPA: I'm freaking out. I'm sure. Like those thing that, like, stick in your mouth. They're so gross. Like, you get saliva all over them. But, like, I don't know, it's gonna be cool, you know, like see my smile. It'll be like totally cool. But my, like, teeth are like too small. But no biggie. It's so awesome. It's tubular, you know.

Well, I'm not like really ugly or anything. It's just like I don't know. You know me, I'm like...

CONAN: Well, grody to the max, David Crystal. About half of those words are still around, and maybe half aren't.


CRYSTAL: Yeah, that's right. You know, I was thinking of awesome as one of the words to put in, and I sort of didn't go for it in the end. I went to some others instead. You know, it's a great clip, and one of the reasons why it's so funny is because it slightly exaggerates the situation. You know, it's a bit of a pastiche in some ways based solidly in reality but nonetheless...

The problem with words like this, like the Val-speak stuff, is that you don't quite know how many of them are going to stay in the language and how many of them are not. And so you might always back the wrong horse, you know. You've got to be a little bit careful.

But certainly in any word book, there has to be some representation of this kind of speech. You see, it's not enough to say oh, it's sloppy, or it's below par and so on. It is actually a feature of the language. In my book, I've got examples of all sorts of vocabulary, vocabulary that people like and people hate, vocabulary that's standard, vocabulary that's non-standard.

The language as a whole has got to represent everything, even though some bits of it some people won't like at all.

CONAN: Some bits of it people won't like at all are rude words, and you've got some very rude ones in the book. Let us talk about one that American ears will have an easier time with, and that is bloody.

CRYSTAL: Yeah, well, bloody is one of those fascinating words. You're absolutely right. You can't miss out on the taboo words in a word book. You may not be able to say them on the radio or on the television, but everybody knows what they are. And interestingly, bloody is one of those words that has gone around the world and attracted different kinds of reaction.

In Britain, it very early on became a very strong word indeed. I mean, it made headline news when it was first used in the theater back in the early 1900s in, you know, "My Fair Lady," as it were. And the flower girl says it out loud, and everybody thought: They'll never say that in the theater. But she did, and there was almost a riot, and it made headline news the next day.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, and indeed in America, people were scratching their heads and wondering what's the fuss all about because a lot of the punch of the word had already disappeared then. That's the thing about rude words: Their effect, their force comes and goes over time.

CONAN: Interesting, also it's an intensifier, a bloody bad day or whatever, like that. We were talking earlier about the word royal and how it has become, similarly, an intensifier.

CRYSTAL: Yes, that's a right royal row they've just had over there. Yes, people use it in an intensifying way. Isn't that fascinating, though, Neal, the unpredictability of that? I mean, who would have predicted, you know, a couple of hundred years ago, that a respectable word like royal would end up being used as a kind of everyday intensified by people from, well, on my side of the pond, you know, Lancashire and Yorkshire and so on. I don't know how far it's used on your side, but...

CONAN: Somewhat. Let's get Jen on the line, Jen with us from San Francisco.

JEN: Hi, hi. It's a great topic.

CONAN: Thank you.

JEN: I'm curious about the word ravel and which I don't know the etymology of an how it's become unraveled, which is what ravel means, and like flammable and inflammable and how those become acceptable.

CRYSTAL: Oh yeah, I mean, you've picked on some of the really difficult examples there, words that have developed two parallel uses over time so that people begin to mix them up.

CONAN: I think the example you use is disinterest and uninterest.

CRYSTAL: Disinterested and uninterested and then flammable and inflammable. The reason is because the prefixes, these little prefixes like dis- and in- and so on have developed many different meanings over the past 1,000 years, and sometimes they'd used in an intensifying way, and sometimes they're used in a kind of negative way.

So when you get a development where you get both of them happening at the same time, like disinterested and uninterested, and people desperately trying to work out the difference between them, they get into a hopeless tangle, and as a result, some people then distance themselves from these words and try to avoid using them because they're never quite sure how they're going to go down.

And the same point applied, of course, for flammable and inflammable, except there lives were at risk. You know, if you put a notice on some chemical and say it's flammable, and then you put a notice on some other chemical and say it's inflammable, what do you mean? Do you mean it's going to blow up or it's not going to blow up? And as a result, some of these words have got a bit - have come to be avoided a bit, really, because of their ambiguity.

JEN: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much. There are also words that we think of as modern, very modern words that refer to, well, all kinds of machines, all kinds of technology. But I was curious to ask you about the word blurb and why you picked the word blurb.

CRYSTAL: Well, I picked blurb because it's one of the rare examples when we know exactly when a word comes into the language. You know, people often ask the question: When did such and such a word start to appear in English? And you look up in the history books and the dictionaries, and it will tell you, oh, at the beginning of the 17th century or in the 1830s or thereabouts. Nobody exactly knows when a particular word comes into English.

But in the case of blurb, we do, because this is a perfect example, been well recorded. The American humorist Gelett Burgess, back in, oh, 1906, '07, something like that, he was at a dinner and he was advertising a book. And he drew a little picture on the jacket of the book that was being circulated and called it a blurb. I mean just like that. I mean he invented the word there and then. And it caught on.

It became part of the publicity for the book. Ever since then, the stuff that you read on the back of a book, which advertises its great properties, are called blurbs. So you can actually pinpoint that particular word down to a particular day, even, a particular moment in linguistic history. And that's very rare indeed.

CONAN: We're talking with David Crystal, the linguist, whose latest book is "The Story of English in 100 Words." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Jeff, and Jeff's with us from Avon in Minnesota.

JEFF: Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Jeff. Go ahead, please.

JEFF: Hi. I'm happily employed as an English teacher at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, and I'm wondering if the good professor shares the delight that I take between a couple of words that I think there's a wonderful simile - symmetry in.

The first word is thesis, which originally meant to place down or place before. And we also have the word critical, which, I believe, came from critin(ph) or crinaean(ph) - you'll have to help me out with the pronunciation - and that meant to pick up, to take up with the hand.

And I just - I think it's neat, you know? All the writers and speakers of the world need a thesis, and hearers need to think critically. I just think it's neat that it evokes the physical and the important parts of human action.

CRYSTAL: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that's what you find when you go back to a lot of these early classical terms, when they came into English. I mean, why did they come into English in the first place? The period we're talking about is the sort of 1600s, really, where tens of thousands of words came into English from Latin and Greek and other European languages as well, but mainly Latin and Greek.

When they came in, they were called hard words very often. They were sometimes called ink-horn(ph) words because they took a lot of ink to write - some of the longer ones, anyway. And they came in because there was a kind of feeling about them, a kind of learnedness about them, a scholarly resonance about them which appealed to the people who, at the time, remember, very, very interested in the classics indeed. This was a period just after the Renaissance. And so that's when, I think, you get these very subtle differences coming in. We've kept them still, and I find them fascinating too.

JEFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much for the call. And we have to go to some very modern words: muggle, for example, of course from the "Harry Potter" novels; unfriend in its most recent usage on Facebook. And you wind up your book with Twittersphere.


CRYSTAL: Yes, I do, don't I? You know, I had to bookend the book. You know, you have to have a beginning and an end if you're telling a story, don't you?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

CRYSTAL: And the beginning was easy because I was able to find the first recorded word in the English language, which was the word roe, R-O-E, a type of...

CONAN: As in the...

CRYSTAL: Roe deer.

CONAN: Yeah. Deer as opposed to row, row, row your boat, or fish eggs, for that matter.

CRYSTAL: Absolutely. Yeah. No, roe deer. Indeed, indeed. So that was the beginning. Now, what do you do for the end? How do you wind the book up? I'd love to put in, you know, the latest word in the English language. And, of course, there's no such thing because as soon as you put that in a book, it's out of date because another word is going to come into use tomorrow. So I thought, what is a word that will point us towards the future? And so I looked around, and I felt it had to be something Internet-y, really.

So I focused on Twitter, which, at the time I was writing, was, you know, still developing as one of the latest and coolest developments online. And I suddenly realized there was a huge family of words out there that Twitter had begun to generate. I've collected, over the months since it started, something like a thousand words, all based on Twitter in some shape or form.

So you've got, you know, not just Twittering and tweeting and so on. You've got the Twittersphere, which is the word I use in the book to capture all this. You've got for people who tweet too much, they're suffering from Twittoria, which I thought was a very nice coinage, didn't you?


CONAN: Yes, it was good. Or Twidiction you have.

CRYSTAL: We've got a Twidiction here. You can look all these things up in the Twictionary.


CONAN: Of course. So as you go ahead with these words - and, as you say, there's one - new one every minute - how can you decide roe was the first one?

CRYSTAL: Well, it's the first recorded one, the first one we know that is actually written down in the language. Of course, nobody would ever know the words that were originally spoken. But this little word was found in a site in Norwich in Norfolk where they were doing a lot of excavation. And they found an urn filled with tiny little bits and pieces, including a fragment of a deer, a roe deer, a bit of its ankle bone. And somebody at the time had actually carved onto this ankle bone, in runic letters, the Anglo-Saxon word for roe, which was raihan, R-A-I-H-A-N. And this is the earliest word we know in the English language. It was a perfect choice to begin the book.

CONAN: David Crystal goes from roe to Twittersphere in his new book "The Story of English in 100 Words." He joined us today from his home in Holyhead in North Wales. Thank you, David Crystal, as always. We appreciate your time.

CRYSTAL: It's been a real pleasure, Neal. Thanks for your interest.

CONAN: Coming up, sending your loved one off to war. David Freed just said goodbye to his son and worries that politicians who send troops to combat don't understand what it's like for families back home. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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