Books for wordsmiths

I’m not especially a fan of ‘how to books’ for writers, which often offer the world but yield up only pages of dry, dense writing in return. Books actually about words, however, now they’re fascinating to me.

There are two I’m particularly enamoured with at the moment, both published by Oxford University Press, and either of which would make great gifts for any word-lover in your life.

Word Origins coverLittle Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins edited by Julia Cresswell

Small enough to carry with you wherever you, this beautiful hardback book offers a wonderland of insights into the words we use everyday with very little thought.

For instance, did you know that the word ‘average’ began life as “a shipping term” and referred to “goods lost or damaged at sea”, or that ‘scarper’ stems from “the Italian scappare ‘to escape’, influenced by the rhyming slang Scapa Flow ‘go’”? Me neither, and how that alters my view of those two simple words!

Rather than running alphabetically like your usual dictionary, instead dividing the entries into several topics, including architecture, behaviour and sensations. How curious just those choices are! The chapter on death includes explanations of the words ‘cemetery’ (“literally a place for sleeping” – how unexpectedly sweet) and ‘extinct’, from extinguish. It’s like holding a map to all the places you hold dear, only to realise as you begin to follow it that along every step of the route there are views you’ve never noticed before.

Words in Time and Place coverWords in Time and Place by David Crystal

Crystal’s taut linguistic collection aims to have your characters chattering happily, and authentically by providing examples of words spoken commonly in a variety of historical periods. Again, chapters are themed, and this time with great purpose. Want to know how your protagonist would refer to the loo? Turn to ‘words for a privy’, need your villains to flatter, insult or talk about the weather? There are chapters for those too, as well words for old folks, money, light meals, and even spacecraft, not to mention a whole chapter dedicated to the nose on your face, and a fine selection of oaths from different eras.

Each word is accompanied with an intriguing snippet of context – for instance, the term ‘on one’s ear’, meaning being drunk, apparently refers to the likelihood of a sozzled person being face down on the floor. Too true.

The introductions to each section are crammed with deeper analysis of the wordy offerings as Crystal points out the distinctions between the definitions of various words for fool, for instance “‘blockhead’ (someone with their sense intact who is acting stupidly) and ‘simpleton’ (someone with a weak intellect).”

It’s these subtle differences that make Words in Time and Place so much more that a historical thesaurus – and equips us to enrich our writing with a myriad of nuances, while stuffing our pockets full of words and their meanings along the way.

To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)