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Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus [Paperback]

Editors Of American Heritage Dictionaries


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Book Description

Oct. 13 2004 0618454500 978-0618454501 0
Did you know that cats are related etymologically to caterpillars? Or that Thomas Edison played a key role in popularizing the use of the greeting “Hello”? Or that muscles were originally mice, since a flexed biceps looks like a little rodent scurrying under the skin? Word Histories and Mysteries provides a panoramic view of the unique richness of English, uncovering the origins of five hundred everyday words whose surprising and often amusing stories offer insights into the history of humankind. Arranged in convenient alphabetical order, the notes are written in a lively and entertaining style perfect for browsing. The reader can learn how some of the most recent words, such as the computer term wiki, were coined, or trace the origins of English back to the Indo-European language spoken long before the invention of writing. A short introduction outlines the techniques linguists use to trace the history of words, and a handy glossary explains the linguistic terms that describe the ways in which language changes over time. Photographs and drawings help familiarize the reader with the ancient objects or cultural practices from which our words have sprung. Fascinating and fun to read, Word Histories and Mysteries is an ideal gift for high school or college students interested in language and for anyone who wants to know more about the curious sounds we make to communicate every day.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (REF) (Oct. 13 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618454500
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618454501
  • Product Dimensions: 21.8 x 14 x 2.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 408 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #708,343 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

English-speakers, especially Americans, are sometimes criticized because so many speak only one language, but in truth, English is a tongue composed of many others. Probably no one knows this better than those for whom etymology is their livelihood, such as these dictionary editors, and they draw on their collective experience of hunting down word origins, whether historical or linguistic, to produce this entertaining volume. Even those who aren’t wordy types may wonder where words like "namby-pamby," "milquetoast" and "hamburger" came from, and the explanations don’t disappoint: poet Henry Carey first coined the term "namby-pamby" to make fun of 18th-century poet Ambrose Philips ("amby" standing for Ambrose); "milquetoast" derives from an English comic strip depicting a timid, retiring man named after a bland food; and "hamburger" comes from "a form of pounded beef called Hamburg steak" that people ate in (where else?) Hamburg, Germany. The brief introductory pages of general language history are somewhat dry, but the tone elsewhere is conversational and rarely technical. Some of the entries have straightforward histories that make one question their inclusion ("asparagus" and "iconoclast" are inherited from Latin and Greek respectively), or are hard to even really consider English (like "ciao" and "maharajah"), but often even then the editors include historical tidbits that add interest. Lovers of language, history and literature should appreciate this book, which is much easier to read and more intriguing than the etymological notes found in a regular dictionary.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very fine linquistic survey Feb. 8 2005
By Midwest Book Review - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
How do new words enter the English language and dictionaries - and where did some older oddities come from? Plenty of 'word origin' titles are published; the Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries answer numerous questions about what influences word changes and popularity, providing the stories of over 400 words from all areas of the vocabulary. Word Histories And Mysteries: From Abracadabra To Zeus is a very fine linquistic survey which is especially recommended for 'word origin' fans.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are You Curious About The Words You Use? Jan. 21 2010
By Ellie - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
From A to Z, many common words have an uncommon history and it is fascinating to trace back the origin and the original usage of words we take for granted. With the reputation of the American Heritage Dictionaries, you can be assured that the research and the writing of this book bring high standards with it. It is easy to read, with a good size print; it does not belabor the subject of any one term.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars big hit with my curious daughter Nov. 5 2012
By Cynthia L. Ouellette - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I bought this for my daughter as she is very curious about word origins and mythology. A great addition to her library. Very easy to read. A pick up and put down book... if you know what I mean. She feels the explanations are a bit shallow, not going into depth much, but still fun as a cursory read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twain would love this! Sept. 24 2012
By Ellen G. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Mark Twain found dictionaries to be fascinating reading, but remarked that he couldn't follow the plot. This book provides the plot for many words, some odd, some ordinary. The short (less than a page) entries are like potato chips -- you can't read just one.
14 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I would like to say that it's a little bit dissapointing May 29 2005
By Dan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This paperback compendium of articles on the origins of words has been compiled by the editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries. Among the oddities revealed by its writers are that average derives from an Old French word meaning "damage to shipping", that caprice comes by a devious route from an old Italian word for a hedgehog, that in medieval times deer was the name for any creature, that in Middle English dinner could mean breakfast, that fawn and fetus are etymologically connected, that garage is from a French word whose first sense in that language was a place where one moors one's boat, that junk originally meant old rope ... and so on. Its writers have not shied away from discussing features of some of the most common words, such as a, it and they.

You will also be painlessly introduced to some of the terminology and ideas of etymology, such as back-formation (a word mistakenly formed from another by removing what looks like an ending), folk etymology (popular legends about word origins), metanalysis (a shift in the division between words, as a napron became an apron, metathesis (in which sounds are transposed inside a word, as wops turned into wasp), and melioration (in which over time a word becomes more elevated or positive in meaning). Though not all these terms are explained in the text, there is a glossary at the end of the book.

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