The average English speaker knows around 50,000 words. That represents an astonishing diversity – nearly 25 times more words than there are individual stars visible to the naked eye in the night sky. And even 50,000 seems insignificant beside the half a million recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. But looked at from an historical perspective, that diversity becomes more apparent than real. Tracing a word’s development back in time shows that in many cases what are now separate lexical terms were formerly one and the same word. The deep prehistory of our language has nurtured little word-seeds that over the millennia have proliferated into widely differentiated families of vocabulary.
The purpose of this book is to uncover the often surprising connections between elements of the English lexicon that have become obscured by centuries of language change – the links in our word-web that join such unlikely partners as, for instance, beef and cow, bacteria and imbecile, and bishop and spy.
The average contemporary English speaker knows 50,000 words. Yet stripped down to its origins, this apparently huge vocabulary is in reality much smaller, derived from Latin, French and the Germanic languages. It is estimated that every year, 800 neologisms are added to the English language: acronyms (nimby), blended words (motel), and those taken from foreign languages (savoir-faire). Laid out in an A-Z format with detailed cross references, and written in a style that is both authoritative and accessible, Word Origins is a valuable historical guide to the English language.