The Story of English in 100 Words

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

David Crystal, honorary professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and now author of The Story of English in 100 Words, discusses what certain words tell us about our linguistic history, and takes your calls on which word you think is the most significant.


David Crystal

Comments [29]


"The horrible use of horrific..."

I actually just did a Google search to see if anyone noticed the same thing and found this!
It drives me nuts because hearing the word horrific CONSTANTLY in the news and I still kind of think of the word terrific in the back of my mind, like the terrible thing that just happened was terrific, yay..

Apr. 29 2012 08:56 PM
Cantonese Speaker from New York, New York

The vacuum cleaner also took influences from Chinese as well.

kowtow/kotow = to bow, is actually the phonetic translation of the characters for bowing in Chinese, now widely used in English.

And of course many English words have found their way into widely used Cantonese Chinese words, and no longer just a phonetic translation.
coolie = a derogatory slang word for unskilled Chinese laborer is now in Chinese; bus; and etc. etc.

The English and Chinese languages, being a part of our cultures, change constantly, as our cultures are changing continuously, sometimes imperceptibly and sometimes dramatically.

Apr. 05 2012 12:36 PM
Susan from Sea Cliff

OFTENTIMES grates on my ears in the manner of (I so wanted to say "like!")fingernails on a blackboard!! It should be "often," or "sometimes!"

And then there is the conjoined "is" twins : "The thing of it is is..."

UGH!!! I am a frustrated English major, as Garrison Keillor would declare, and my academic accomplishment is not at all steller! Who knew??

See where I'm at??? Get where I'm coming from???

More annoying than no problem, "no worries!"

Apr. 04 2012 05:54 PM
The horrible use of horrific...

When I was young, one would hear about horrible natural disasters,
horrible crimes and the horrible deeds of evil foreign dictators.
Nowadays, I only hear about the "horrific" actions and events in the
world! What happened to the word "horrible" ? Why was it replaced
by the word "horrific" in most of the public media ? And WHEN
did this horrific turn of events occur ?

Just wondering...

Apr. 04 2012 04:02 PM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Cool! (Doe this need any further explanation....?)

Apr. 04 2012 12:05 PM
henry from nj

"Chutzpah" is a Hebrew word taken up by Yiddish

Apr. 04 2012 11:59 AM
Michael Dorfman from Long Island

The contribution of the Yiddish language isn't mainly in the borrowing Yiddish words, but in the language constructions and loan-constructions in American vernacular

Apr. 04 2012 11:59 AM
Chris from Bay Shore

How about "No problem" which seems to the universal response to when you thank someone for something. A "You're welcome" would suffice.

Apr. 04 2012 11:58 AM
Brook from Bronx, NY


Apr. 04 2012 11:57 AM
Joan from Tarrytown from Tarrytown

People used to say "make priorities" but within the last 30 years or so, "prioritize" has replaced the less aggressive phrase.

Apr. 04 2012 11:57 AM
dorothy from Manhattan

I hung around to hear this and I'm glad I did (even tho' I didn't really listen to any earlier segments) -- will listen to this one again later.
Invite him again next week, but do 1/2 hour at least.

Apr. 04 2012 11:57 AM
Lou Viola from Brooklyn

Only those of a certain age would remember that the 60's tv show Dobie Gillis, particularly the character Maynard G. Krebs, put the use of "like" into the language as a parody of the beats, as they were known at the time...

Apr. 04 2012 11:55 AM
er-nay from UWS

How about the two words ... "google it"

Apr. 04 2012 11:54 AM
Danny Kapilian from Gowanus

"Actually" is a qualifier. Why not just say what you intend without it?

Apr. 04 2012 11:54 AM
Clare from manhattan

How about "rather" - why does this one adverb become a verb when you put "would" in front of it?

Apr. 04 2012 11:54 AM

We are reading Baum's original Wizard of Oz to our child, and I puzzled over the use of the word "humbug." Dorothy calls the fake-wizard a humbug, and he agrees, "Yes, I am a humbug." It's used as a noun.
When the word is used at all these days, it's as an interjection, to quote Scrooge: "Bah, humbug."
What's up with the origins of this word?

Apr. 04 2012 11:53 AM
Emily from Jersey City

My 5th grade teacher had a list of words that we weren't allowed to use in class. Included were things such as: kids, cops, guys, interesting, a lot, like, among others.
We were forced to find alternatives and expand our vocabulary.

Apr. 04 2012 11:53 AM

One of my favorite words is company, from the Latin for "with bread" or one who shares bread - a unique and lovely way to think about business!

Apr. 04 2012 11:53 AM
grace from uws


I think it's obvious that "It's me" comes from "C'est moi" and that attempts to force us to say "It is I" are misguided, almost hypercorrections.

Your guest's view?

Apr. 04 2012 11:53 AM
Sooz from NJ

For the present: what is his take on "meme"?

Apr. 04 2012 11:52 AM
andrea from Rockland

How about the word "indeed"? A class indicator, indeed!

Apr. 04 2012 11:52 AM
art525 from Park Slope

Years ago there was a terrific PBS series and book The Story of English. It made a big impression on me. I think he tip toes around the whole issue of Anglo Saxon words. It wasn't just pork. Most of the swear words we have today were common ANglo Saxon but they were turned into dirty words by the French exercising their superiority. So they replaced common words with ones such as defecate, fornicate etc. Also I heard the the addition of silent letters like dumb was a case of the upper class English adding these laetters so they could display their superior education over the dum masses.

Apr. 04 2012 11:51 AM
KP from NJ

let's ban the word 'nice'....

Apr. 04 2012 11:51 AM
Listener from la


Apr. 04 2012 11:50 AM
Millie from Manhattan

I think a very important word in the news today is "transparency."

Apr. 04 2012 11:50 AM
More from nyc

OMG, I love this guy. Can you make this a month long segment...This is good stuff. I've always wondered about this stuff.

Apr. 04 2012 11:49 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

Fun & interesting segment. Great to listen to the guest!

Apr. 04 2012 11:48 AM
Yiorgos from Astoria

OK comes from the greek 'Olla Kalla' which means 'All Good'

Apr. 04 2012 11:47 AM

The latest fad is to start answers with the word "so."
"What is the recipe for that?"
"So, I get 2 eggs, then..." blah blah blah.

"So" is SO annoying!

Apr. 04 2012 11:46 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.