10 Books About Words For Logophilic Readers Interested In The Wonders Of Language
Are you a lifelong logophile, a voracious vocabularian, or a savvy sesquipedalian? If so, you've come to the right place. Between books, texts, emails, articles, and Wikipedia rabbit holes, we all read hundreds of words every day at the very least. But where did these words come from? How did the modern American vernacular evolve? Why is there no English word for the day after tomorrow? (There technically is, and it's "overmorrow," but why don't we actually use it?) For the true word nerd, here are a few veritably verbose books about words.
The weird thing about words is that there's just... no getting away from them. Even if you only speak English, chances are good that your daily vocabulary is peppered with loan words from Spanish, German, Turkish and a dozen more languages to boot. You're following complex rules of syntax without even realizing it. And you're almost certainly quoting Shakespeare every time you open your mouth, because the Bard invented over 1700 words, including "bump," "elbow," and "skim milk." Words are pretty wild. And the history of words is even wilder. So whether you're a grammar stickler or a slang aficionado, there's a word book out there for you:
'Thereby Hangs a Tale' by Charles Earle Funk
Wondering where all these English words even come from? Charles Earle Funk has the answers. Thereby Hangs a Tale is a collection of some of the oddest and most interesting tidbits from etymology, the study of word origins. For example, did you know that the root of the word "school" comes from a word meaning leisure? Or that "dunce" comes from a great philosopher? Or that "to be frank with someone" is a reference to marauding tribes of ancient Europe? It's all in the book.
'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English' by John McWhorter
To be fair, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue focuses slightly more on the history of English grammar than on the history of English vocab. But it has got to be, hands down, the most exciting history of English grammar you will ever read. John McWhorter's take on linguistic history features viking invasions, Roman armies, and the bizarre story of blood and conquest behind the simple word "do."
'The Insomniac's Dictionary: The Last Word On The Odd Word' by Paul Hellweg
Can't sleep? Pick up this book and binge on weird words instead. I'm not entirely sure why this odd little book exists, but it is an extremely delightful collection of words about words, as well as lists of phobias, manias, and strange collective nouns (such as a an "exaltation of larks"). You'll find long words, short words, portmanteaus, abbreviations, and every other kind of verbiage you could possibly want.
'Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors' by Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson is known for his his funny, informative books on pretty much everything. With Bryson's Dictionary, he's created a guide to the English language that is both hilarious and genuinely helpful, filled with spelling guides, fun facts, and all of those weird exceptions to the linguistic rules. As Bryson himself puts it: “English is a dazzlingly idiosyncratic tongue, full of quirks and irregularities that often seem willfully at odds with logic and common sense.”
'In Other Words' by Jhumpa Lahiri
If you're less in the mood for word lists and more in the mood for a love story about language, pick up Jhumpa Lahiri's In Other Words. Lahiri has been madly in love with the Italian language for years and, in 2012, she decided to pack up her family and move to Rome. In Other Words is a memoir of learning to express yourself in a new tongue, and all the trials and tribulations of loving language itself.
'Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers' by Paul Dickson
Who gave us the words "nerd," "lovelorn," and "anchovy"? Authors, that's who. Writers have been making words up (or re-mixing existing words, or jotting down slang) for generations, and we owe a lot of what we call "English" to the nonsense penned by people like Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Jane Austen. Authorisms is a fascinating collection of made-up words that we still use on the daily, brought to you by some of your all-time favorite authors.
'Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing' by Melissa Mohr
What makes bad words bad? Melissa Mohr is headed back to Ancient Rome for the answers. Holy Sh*t takes us on a brilliant, sometimes foulmouthed tour of the history of swearing, and how swearwords reflect on our cultural values. It's a serious discussion of the obscene, from the Victorians refusing to say the word "leg" to all those words scrawled on the bathroom wall of your middle school.
'I Never Knew There Was a Word For It' by Adam Jacot de Boinod
The Albanians have 29 words for eyebrows, and the Yorkshire term "shotclog" refers to someone you tolerate because they're buying the drinks. I Never Knew There Was a Word For It travels all around the world to bring us very specific words that just don't have an English equivalent (but definitely should).
'Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms' by Ralph Keyes
Why do we have so many words for referring to other words? What does dying have to do with kicking a bucket or buying a farm or biting the dust? We're obsessed with euphemisms, and Euphemania explores the reasons why. From death to sex to money to war, we've come up with a lot of strange phrases to avoid talking about the things that make us uncomfortable, and Ralph Keyes is here to explain them all.
'In the Land of Invented Language' by Arika Okrent
Klingon. Elvish. Esperanto. The world is filled with invented languages. Some were created for fiction, while others are an attempt to create a more perfect method of human speech (we're still waiting for Esperanto to catch on). Arika Okrent dives into all the "famous" fake languages, as well as some lesser known tongues like Babm and Blissymbolics, putting each in its own wonderfully weird cultural context.