May We Borrow Your Language?

By Philip Gooden

Publisher: Head of Zeus

Pages: 336

Price: Rs  706

Samuel Johnson, in 1755, published A Dictionary of the English Language. It was in conclusion to this gargantuan feat that he declared language to be a living thing. Philip Gooden’s book May We Borrow Your Language?,  in agreement to Dr. Johnson’s belief,  treats language as a living thing; in particular, words. For Gooden, words are composite of their identities; each word has an origin, a context in which it was birthed, a history of transformation and appropriation, and a life of which much can be said. But, the work, especially with its colourful book cover of a parrot stealing an “O” from the word borrow, and its introduction written by Gooden, compels one to fixate on how the English language has for ages stolen from here and there. This emphatic need to realise English as a “great artist”, since it stole and didn’t copy, can be an inhibitor to the experience of a reader who purely pursues to know the history of the numerous words Gooden has so kindly traced for us.

Gooden has specified the value this work holds for other writers of words, and the value cannot be stressed enough.  He has paid attention to understanding that each word has a form which is crafted and re-crafted as it is incorporated into a language like English. Some words are able to tell tales of cultures that they have come from while others speak of socio-political status and power. The engaging aspect of the book happens to be in the fun of chasing words that you’ve always liked the ring of, but never really known much about. The chapters carry a word as the title and, in brackets, give as sub-head the year to which it can be traced. The chronology is baffling since you wouldn’t have expected a word you’ve used so often to have come from a time so far in the past and with a spelling and pronunciation you cannot discern. The example of the sort would be the word queen, the origin of which has been traced by Gooden to as far back as the early ninth century and it is spelled as “cwen”. The world “cwen” would be a “noblewoman” or “wife of an important man”.

Words which came into existence by mistake are an interesting lot. The word “tranect”, which is available in the Oxford English Dictionary, is the result of a probable misprint in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The word which “tranect” is a misprint of is “traject”, and it means a crossing-point on a river or a ferry. Gooden goes on to pick other such words, like “mondegreen”, which he says “should not exist”. 

The word “thing”, too, has a peculiar history. Today it can be made to mean almost anything in accordance with the circumstance. Gooden lists a few good examples of the vagaries in the meaning. The word “thing” can be traced back to words like “Thigstätte”, which is used to refer to amphitheaters where a “general assembly” would congregate. The similar meaning can still be found in words like “Alpingi” which is used to refer to Iceland’s parliament, meaning “all-thing” or “general assembly”. The fascinating aspect for Gooden, as for the reader as well, is how from meanings like gathering and assembly the word “thing” has come to mean almost everything. It makes one gawp in wonder at how humans were able to devise so much from practically just a word which doesn’t even mean the same thing when written as “thing” more than once in the same sentence.

Gooden to say the least has acted as a curator who has chosen words from a humongous collection. And his picks are what make the text an appealing read. The book discusses words like “ketchup”, “agrophobia”, “promethean”, “mumbo-jumbo” and “bum”.

Words like “pasta” and “bazaar” have been incorporated or “stolen” (as per Gooden) without any change and are traceable to a recent past. But for Gooden the history of the earliest of centuries is vital in the lexicon of the English language. He provides the reader with “A Note” which discusses Celtic as the first language spoken by those who lived in Britain and Ireland. Celtic is then followed by two Germanic languages, Old English or Anglo-Saxon and Norse, and a form of French called Norman French as the indispensible members of the English language history. Languages like Latin and Greek are also among the founding influences in this history.

Some histories are easily traceable to the people they take after, like “Stalinist” which takes after Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union. And “bowdlerize”, a verb, which means “to expurgate a text so that anything offensive is removed”, takes after Thomas Bowdler who edited and published The Family Shakespeare, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays rendered inoffensive and readable for children. Other histories are evasive and have obscure origins, words like “big”, which are too evident a part of the language.

Gooden to say the least has acted as a curator who has chosen words from a humongous collection. And his picks are what make the text an appealing read. The book discusses words like “ketchup”, “agrophobia”, “promethean”, “mumbo-jumbo”, “bum”, “24/7” (unclassifiable creations), “nirvana”, “doppelganger” and the f-word, which has the longest chapter in the book. Each word has two or three pages to itself, and each page is full of information that cannot go ignored.   

The book is a museum of words; words hang in their respective enclosures, but without a clear backdrop, since each of them have lived through long and variegated histories. The reader must recall that this is a work of non-fiction, and at that a collection of words. The reading is best done by going to the book again and again when the history of a word beckons. A reading over an elapsed period of the entire text is meant for those that pursue and study words.  

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