The most accessible books about the English language
The best non-fiction books are often the most accessible, at least if you’re a keen amateur or enthusiast rather than a specialist. From language trivia books to overviews and histories of the English language, there are many informative and engaging books about words and language out there, so where to begin? Here are eight of our favourites, which shine a light on how language evolved, how it’s been theorised and talked about over the centuries, and what surprising connections underlie the various words we use every day.
Mark Forsyth, The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. This book was a bestseller upon its publication in 2011, and you can see why. Forsyth takes the inspired approach of highlighting the surprising links between words, such as what connects botox with sausages, or what the link is between California and the Caliphate. Forsyth writes with mischievous wit throughout, but is also often very wise about language and the way we use it. (Indeed, wit and wisdom are two more words which are etymologically related.) Also worth checking out is Forsyth’s follow-up book, The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language, which salvages forgotten useful everyday words from obscurity. (Our personal favourite: ‘uhtceare’, an Old English word meaning ‘to lie awake at dawn, worrying’.)
Paul Anthony Jones, Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words. This book also takes an innovative approach to etymology, through presenting a series of ‘top ten’ lists discussing, for instance, ten words derived from British place names, ten words derived from food, ten words derived from literary characters, and various others. It’s full of real gems. @HaggardHawks is also on Twitter, and well worth a follow for daily word fun.
Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue: The Story of the English Language. Bryson has written informatively and entertainingly on the home (At Home: A short history of private life), Shakespeare (Shakespeare: The World as a Stage), and, perhaps most famously, science (A Short History Of Nearly Everything), but he started out with this short and very engaging book, one of the most popular recent books on the English language. As an enthusiast rather than an expert (though he did work in copy-editing for many years), Bryson’s style is marked by a fondness for anecdote, and some of the interesting stories about the English language which he recounts here are the stuff of great pub conversation. Our favourite of his many anecdotes involves a letter that somebody in the US once addressed to ‘Wood / John / Mass’ – which reportedly arrived at the correct destination: ‘John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts’. Though that may have just been the US postal service bigging itself up.
Henry Hitchings, Dr Johnson’s Dictionary: The Book that Defined the World: The Extraordinary Story of the Book That Defined the World. This book is that rare thing: a popular yet scholarly book, full of detailed research, which its author wears lightly. It’s also frequently laugh-out-loud funny. If you want to know how eighteenth-century England’s greatest man of letters came to compile the first substantial English dictionary, this is an indispensable book.
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. This is not so much a ‘trivia’ book as a scholarly (though very accessible) study of the ways in which we develop our language skills cognitively, first as children and then as adults. But Pinker is a very engaging writer and the examples he uses are often fascinating. The focus is not limited to English but considers the ways in which we are all hard-wired to learn our language, though naturally many of Pinker’s examples come from English.
Paul Hellweg, The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words (Wordsworth Reference). Every serious logolept or word-lover should invest in this book. It’s essentially a bumper collection of word lists, including all the major phobias (and some rather weird and niche ones), sleep-related words, acronyms, words related to sex and love, and so on. Of all the collections of weird and wonderful words out there, this book has to be one of the best and most informative. If you wish to know the technical word for the wish to pull out your hair, or the name for a fear of being in a room full of people, this book has all the answers and many more.
David Crystal, The English Language: A Guided Tour of the Language. No list of accessible books about the English language would be complete without one of David Crystal’s many highly readable books on the subject. He’s probably the best writer on the English language publishing today. Of all his books, this one gets our vote, since it comprehensively gives the reader an entertaining and enlightening crash-course in all of the key aspects of the English language, from its history and development through to its structure, vocabulary, and the impact of recent technology (such as textspeak, about which Crystal has also written a separate book).
Randolph Quirk, The Use of English. This book is of an older pedigree than the others on this list, but is one of Crystal’s favourites on the subject – and one of ours, too, not least because, like Samuel Johnson before him, Quirk understood the importance of looking to English literature to understand the English language. It’s sadly out of print, but thanks to online second-hand bookstores, you can pick up a copy for the price of a pint.
If you enjoyed this pick of some of the best books about the English language, we have more book recommendations in our list of ten favourite books on Shakespeare. For more language fun, see our post about Reverend Spooner, who gave his name to the spoonerism.