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The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

Narrated by: Anne Curzan
Length: 18 hrs and 22 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (9 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

From new words such as "bling" and "email" to the role of text messaging and other electronic communications, English is changing all around us. Discover the secrets behind the words in our everyday lexicon with this delightful, informative survey of English, from its Germanic origins to the rise of globalization and cyber-communications.

Professor Curzan approaches words like an archaeologist, digging below the surface to uncover the story of words, from the humble "she" to such SAT words as "conflagration" and "pedimanous."

In these 36 fascinating lectures, you'll

  • discover the history of the dictionary and how words make it into a reference book like the Oxford English Dictionary;
  • survey the borrowed words that make up the English lexicon;
  • find out how words are born and how they die;
  • expand your vocabulary by studying Greek and Latin "word webs"; and
  • revel in new terms, such as "musquirt," "adorkable," and "struggle bus."

English is an omnivorous language and has borrowed heavily from the many languages it has come into contact with, from Celtic and Old Norse in the Middle Ages to the dozens of world languages in the truly global 20th and 21st centuries. You'll be surprised to learn that the impulse to conserve "pure English" is nothing new. In fact, if English purists during the Renaissance had their way, we would now be using Old English compounds such as "flesh-strings" for "muscles" and "bone-lock" for "joint."

You may not come away using terms like "whatevs" or "multislacking" in casual conversation, but you'll love studying the linguistic system that gives us such irreverent - and fun - slang, from "boy toy" to "cankles."

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©2012 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)2012 The Great Courses

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  • Dubi
  • New York, NY
  • 2017-05-15

The Whole Nine Yards

Anne Curzan "leaves no stone unturned" in this great Great Courses course, covering the history of words and phrases of every "stripe" -- original English words, words "borrowed" from other languages, words made up "out of whole cloth", mispronounced words, misunderstood words, words whose origins are "lost in the ether", slang words, words from sports, military, the internet, romance, even words like "um" and "you know" that don't seem to have "bona fide" functions as words (and yet they do), even words that don't exist (common things for which there are no specific words).

I've "perused" a number of other books on this subject -- one was an amusing look at the often surprising "origin stories" of common words and phrases, one was about the interplay between the history of words and the impact of history on words, one was about how English became so flexible as to come to "rule the world". This course "covers every base" and then some. I cannot "fathom" any aspect of the English language that has not been "put under the microscope" here.

Except for the "whole nine yards", for which I still have never seen an explanation -- why do we say "the whole nine yards" when it takes ten yards to make a first down? All the other words and phrases in quotation marks in the prior paragraphs are explained in this course.

Professor Curzan is "descriptive" in her attitude toward language, which means she sees her function as a linguist as one of studying the language, rather than judging how people use it, which would be "prescriptive". That makes for great observations on her part, because she had no interest in whether a word or usage is right or wrong, her only interest in whether it is lasting or ephemeral in nature.

Personally, I would prefer more prescriptive opinions -- she goes to great lengths to excuse the mispronunciation of ask as "aks", as if those who make that mistake cite Chaucer in doing so, and no matter what she says, using "literally" to mean "figuratively" is only acceptable as sarcasm, and using "irregardless" is never excusable, regardless of the circumstances. Then too, you see her growing very prescriptive when it comes to the use of gender- or race-related language, so she is really only drawing her line at a different place than the prescriptivists she dismisses as short-sighted.

Nevertheless, this course is a lot of fun (Curzan is an excellent narrator) and it is highly elucidating (even for someone like me who has already read several books on this topic). If you love language, this is for you. Even if you don't necessarily believe that it is of interest, try it -- you'll never listen to someone use "like" and many other words and phrases the same again.

25 of 25 people found this review helpful

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  • Cassi
  • Australia
  • 2013-10-21

So interesting and relevant

What made the experience of listening to The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins the most enjoyable?

Professor Curzan was easy to listen to and understand. She spoke fluently and confidently. I loved the word play and history. The consistent referencing meant it was easy to get further information.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins?

Learning the different meanings and beginnings for words, such as fathom, nice and wife. The history of words just enthralled me. Also Prof Curzan's input to the word of the century - she.

What about Professor Anne Curzan’s performance did you like?

She was funny, easy to understand and expressive. She has a way of using her tone of voice to convey her thoughts. This is shown most prominently when discussing the N word.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

I laughed out loud many times throughout this lecture series.

20 of 22 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 2014-03-18

A wordsmith in her own right.

Would you listen to The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins again? Why?

I would absolutely listen to this series again - and again - and again. You can't appreciate it all the first time through. It would be wonderful to have a followup lecture each year to see how we morph on the continuum.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

Everything was compelling. Anne is credible, interesting, and has an off beat sense of humor that keeps things in perspective. Her superb organization of concepts makes her easy to follow. Excellent use of examples. Just wish I could remember them all!

Which character – as performed by Professor Anne Curzan – was your favorite?

As this was not a novel with characters, an interesting question. I was sincerely struck however with Anne's own beautiful, expansive, choice of descriptive words. Even if I hadn't learned volumes from the content, I would have appreciated her word choices for their own use in context.

If you could give The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins a new subtitle, what would it be?

Perfect title. Or perhaps a paraphrase of the song title Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered - by Words.

Any additional comments?

The Great Courses - a Teaching Company offerings are a wonderful contribution to the Audible library. The courses create opportunity for those of us who stopped formal education years ago. Audible, thank you for providing Great Course material.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • lute player
  • 2014-03-08

A must read.

Would you listen to The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins again? Why?

Yes. Tons of information, almost all of which is interesting.

What did you like best about this story?

Incredible scope of topics and word studies.

Have you listened to any of Professor Anne Curzan’s other performances before? How does this one compare?

No. First one.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Took a month to listen to whole book.

Any additional comments?

I rarely give 5 star reviews to anything. This series is deserving of 5 stars.

11 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Jake
  • Port Hueneme, California, United States
  • 2014-07-06

Fantastic

Anne Curzan is a masterful teacher. She is organized, yet conversational. She gives you a cornucopia of linguistic and lexicographical information that is both fascinating and instructive. She is funny and adept at giving felicitous examples to support her point. You will learn so much about the English language in this course. I just can't rave enough about it. It's far better that John McWhorter's meandering courses. I think I learned more from Curzan's few lectures about English's history than McWhorter's entire course about the subject. This is one of the best Great Courses.

14 of 16 people found this review helpful

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  • Bror Erickson
  • Farmington New Mexico
  • 2014-05-02

Words and the Stories They Tell

What did you love best about The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins?

This was a fun course to listen to. Anne Curzanne kept the discussion lively and did well relating the subject to everyday experience giving a person a different perspective on what "proper" and "improper" English is discussing different ideas as to how the English language works, grows, expands and changes over time and why it does so.

What did you like best about this story?

I found the discussion of influences different languages have had on English to be absolutely intriguing, especially where Norse and Medieval English are concerned because of how related those two early Germanic languages must have been to begin with, But also the influence of French in two waves was interesting and that the two dialects have given us different pronunciations for essentially the same words which have taken on completely different even if related meanings in the English language. Fascinating.

Which character – as performed by Professor Anne Curzan – was your favorite?

The Author does a wonderful job in this course making the subject matter interesting, relating it to different social issues, or offering you "party favors" at the beginning of the lecture.

If you were to make a film of this book, what would the tag line be?

Can't say I found anything wrong. She gave a great course of lectures presenting interesting material in an interesting way.

8 of 9 people found this review helpful

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  • Luis
  • 2015-03-20

Excellent

This is a great book! I think I will listen this book again in a not to distant future.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • IowaGreyhound
  • Ogden, IA USA
  • 2015-01-18

Great class

Easy to follow, contains lots of interesting info about the English language. I looked forward to each lecture and now wish there was another course to follow this one.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Spanish teacher
  • 2015-02-15

Loved this history on our language.

I enjoyed this lecturer so much, I think I may listen to it again. As a Spanish teacher there is so much I can use when explaining languages to my students and this lecturer series really helps.

I also loved the speaker. She sounds adorable and you can get a sense of her personality within the lessons. 😊

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Chris Allen-Poole
  • 2016-09-12

Meh. Go elsewhere.

Frankly, there are better lectures on linguistics. She isn't terribly charismatic, and these lectures seemed to drag. I also felt that some of the comments weren't accurate, and that some of the information was skewed. I most clearly recall her comment that "out of left field" had partially to do with English's prejudice against the left hand. That is rubbish.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • MERNIZ
  • 2018-06-10

Insightful, smart and enjoyable as always.

I love Anne Curzan's linguistic analyses.
She focuses on the history of words and grammar to create a more dynamic and fulfilling approach to language study.