Word Histories and Mysteries: From Abracadabra to Zeus Paperback – Oct 13 2004
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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 arent wordy types may wonder where words like "namby-pamby," "milquetoast" and "hamburger" came from, and the explanations dont 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.
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About the Author
The Editors of the American Heritage Dictionaries are a team of professional lexicographers with advanced degrees in various scholarly fields. The editors familiarize themselves with the vocabulary in specific subject areas, collect materials on new developments and usage, and work with expert consultants to ensure that our publications are accurate and up-to-date.
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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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