Excerpt from The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Meaning of Everything

The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

By Simon Winchester

The Meaning of Everything
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2003,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2004,
    286 pages.

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Both, same, seem, get, give, they, them, and their all stem from these northern, ice-bound people too. Skirt, sky, scathe, skill, and skin employ a well-known two-letter Scandinavian beginning. And we can somehow understand that the gloomy antecedents of Ibsen would have given to English the likes of awkward, birth, dirt, fog (perhaps), gap, ill, mire, muggy, ransack, reindeer, root, rotten, rugged, scant, scowl, and wrong. There is rather less obvious connection with cake, sprint, steak, and wand - though these jollier words did indeed come from the Norsemen too. As did Thursday - or rather, it was modified by them, since an earlier version of the day that honoured Thor did in fact appear in Old English itself.

But for all this, Old English was first and foremost a home-grown language - by far its greatest component being the Teutonic stock of words gifted by the Jutlanders and Frisians and Angles who began to drift into the population in the wake of Hengist and Horsa. The total accumulation of Latin and Norse loanwords (and a triflingly small number of probable French lendings, too--among them words like prisen, castel, and prud, which equate to today's prison, castle, and proud) amount to no more than three per cent of Old English's word stock; Germanic words account for almost all the rest. And though we glibly say that the language as written and spoken 1,000 years ago is recognizable to the modern ear - it is certainly more so than the Celtic of the very early British - the numbers suggest otherwise: something like nine out of every ten of the Old English words have since fallen into disuse. It was really not until Old English began to transmute itself into Middle English that we start to see and hear and read something that is a simulacrum of what we see and hear and read today.

Copyright Simon Winchester 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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