26 Books in 2017 Book 13: The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal @davcr @ProfileBooks

Book number 13 in the 26-Books-in-52-Weeks challenge has to be a book with a number in the title.

There are various books I could have chosen. For example, one favourite from this category would be The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan, which is probably the first thriller I read aged about thirteen. Another favourite would be, The Seven Daughters of Eve by Brian Sykes, which is non-fiction and is about genetic heritage. It tells how all Europeans are descended from just seven females who lived thousands of years ago.

But the one I’ve decided on is The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal. This is an entertaining, dip-into sort of book. I studied the history of the English language as part of my MA back in the 1970s and my fascination with how this rich and complex language developed persists. And of course, as a writer, it’s not surprising that I have an interest in all things linguistic.

Here’s the inside front cover blurb:

Featuring Latinate and Celtic words, weasel words and nonce-words, ancient words (‘loaf’) to cutting edge (‘twittersphere’) and spanning the indispensable words that shape our tongue (‘and’, ‘what’) to the more fanciful (‘fopdoodle’), Crystal takes us along the winding byways of language via the rude, the obscure and the downright surprising.

In this unique new history of the world’s most ubiquitous language, linguistics expert David Crystal draws on words that best illustrate the huge variety of sources, influences and events that have helped to shape our vernacular since the first definitively English word was written down in the fifth century (‘roe’, in case you are wondering).

And from the back cover:

Fopdoodle – a lost word (17th century)

A fop was a fool. A doodle was a simpleton. So a fopdoodle was a fool twiceover. Fopdoodle is one of those words that people regret are lost when they hear about them.

There are several delightful items in Johnson’s Dictionary which we no longer use. He tells us that nappiness was the quality of having a nap. A bedswerver was ‘one that is false to the bed’. A smellfeast was ‘a parasite, one who haunts good tables’. A worldling was ‘a mortal set on profits’. A curtain-lecture was ‘a reproof given by a wife to her husband in bed’.

There’s such a great variety of words included in this book along with their history. There’s everything from Alphabet to LOL, from the commonplace to the, ahem, Anglo-Saxon, and from the fifth century to the twenty-first. Crystal even explains where ‘and’ and ‘what’ come from.

I’d say there’s definitely a 100 reasons to check this book out.

The Story of English in 100 Words is published by Profile Books.


26 Books in 2017: Book 3

My third post in the 26-books-in 52-weeks challenge has to be about a book published over a hundred years ago. It was a difficult choice as there are lots of classic books in this category that mean a lot to me. But in the end I decided to go for one I first read when I was around eleven-years-old, and then reread several times after that, and that is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

A fact I didn’t know until I came to write this post was that Little Women was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. But by the time I read it in the 1960s it was available all one book.

I loved the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Perhaps some of its appeal for me came from the fact that I am myself one of five sisters. They were all distinctive characters with their own strengths and weaknesses. I identified most with Jo, the one who was a bit stubborn and resisted convention, and who loved books and writing.

The story is set in America during the American Civil War and the sisters are all young women living at home in a small town with their mother. Their father is an army chaplain and is away from home for most of the story.

During the story, the four sisters face up to poverty, illness and bereavement but they also grow up, fall in love and develop resilience and self-reliance. Part of its appeal for me (and I’m sure still is for young readers nowadays) was that it showed girls and women as being independent thinkers capable of making their own decisions.

I went on to read and enjoy Little Women‘s two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, as well.

By coincidence BBC Radio 4’s daily Woman’s Hour programme recently broadcast a serial dramatisation of the book. It was a great way to revisit it. An audio CD of the serialisation is available here.

Little Women is available in various editions and from various publishers. The cover image above is from the MacMillan Collector’s Library edition.

26 Books in 2017: Book 2


My second post in this 26 books-in-52-weeks challenge had to come from the category – A Book from Childhood.

Picking just one of the many books I read as a child was difficult. I was a bookworm from an early age. From around the age of five, my mother regularly took me to the local library – Morningside Library in Edinburgh – and I would spend ages browsing in the children’s section. It was a habit I continued as I got older and could get to the library on my own. As a teenager, and having moved to the other side of Edinburgh, I frequented Leith Library and also made use of the excellent school library at my high school, Leith Academy.

The first proper novel length book I remember reading was Enid Blyton’s First Term at Malory Towers. It was a present given to me by my grandmother when I was seven-years-old and in hospital getting my tonsils out. I raced through it and Granny promptly bought me Second Form at Malory Towers.

I ended up reading that whole series – as well as Blyton’s Famous Five, Secret Seven and Mystery series. I could have chosen any of them to feature here. I also read and loved the Heidi books by Johanna Spyri, the Katy Books by Susan Coolidge, as well as Peter Pan, Black Beauty, and lots of other well known children’s classics.

However, I’ve decided to highlight a book from my childhood that I suspect is perhaps less well known. The book is Back Stage by Lorna Hill. It was published in 1960 and I read it some years later when I was twelve. I still have my first edition copy with its price tag of 6 shillings (30pence).

As an aspiring ballet dancer myself, at the time, I loved the story of Anna and Vicki who were pupils at the Royal Ballet School in London.

I must admit, when I picked this book off the shelf today in order to write about it, I couldn’t remember much about the story. But I did remember I adored it at the time I read it. So much so I immediately got Vicki in Venice, the next one in the series.

Yes, the language is a bit dated now. A favourite example for me is a line of dialogue that goes: “Oh, no, Joady,” I expostulated. I suspect there’s not a lot of expostulating going in today’s children’s novels.

But aside for some quaintness, the novel’s themes endure and are still relevant today. The story deals with bullying, friendship, the loss of a parent, the difficulties of adolescence and even first love. The heroine, Anna, is self-reliant, stands up for herself, and makes her own decisions – so still a good role model for today’s girls.

Plot wise, there’s a good twist, a reckoning, and a satisfying resolution.

Yes, this book definitely earned its place as one of my childhood favourites and has also earned the right to still be on my bookshelf nearly (eek!) fifty years later.

What one book would you pick as a standout favourite from your childhood?

26 Books: 2017 Reading Challenge: Part 1


Book 1: A Book I Read in School

I mentioned in a previous post here that I was going to undertake this particular reading challenge in 2017. The idea is to share books of all sorts, across 26 categories, at a rate of one per fortnight and hopefully to inspire others to read them if they haven’t already done so. 

The first book of the challenge has to be ‘A book you read in school’.

I’ve chosen one of the set books from my first year at high school in Edinburgh – way back in the Dark Ages at the end of the 1960s. The book was Treasure Island by Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson.

I loved reading it. Sometimes we read a chapter aloud around the class and sometimes we were set a chapter to read as homework. We would discuss the story with each other and with our teacher, a formidable but inspiring woman. We were also split into groups and each group was set the task of dramatising a scene or two from the story and then presenting the dramatisation to the rest of the class. My group met at my house to work on this and to rehearse our play. I loved all of that.

Treasure Island was first produced in 1881/82 in serial form in Young Folks, a children’s magazine. It was described at the time of publication as being about ‘buccaneers and buried gold’ and yes, it’s a high-seas, swashbuckling, fast-paced adventure, but more than that, it’s essentially a coming-of-age story. Young hero, Jim Hawkins, is a timid child at the start. His father is dead and Jim must earn some money. During his time at sea Jim develops into a mature young man. He has to deal with deadly enemies as his pirate crew mates go in search of the treasure. He has to be self-reliant, cope with moral ambiguities and face up to greed and temptation. There’s complexity too. Little is clear cut. The villain, Long John Silver, is a vibrant and charismatic antagonist. Jim comes to a mature view regarding Silver, at one point referring to him as ‘the best man here’, and at the end he wishes him well. This all contributes to the book being an enduring classic in what we’d probably now call the YA (young adult) genre.

Of course at the time I first read it, I didn’t completely understand all the grand themes, but what I did get was that even though life was hard for Jim, he made the best of it. He went on a big adventure and had to be both brave and good. He changed, he grew up and he survived.

For young people today Treasure Island is still a good adventure story and its message of resilience, courage and self-reliance are still relevant today.

What books do you remember reading at school? What were they and did you enjoy them?

Treasure Island is available in various editions including the one linked to here which is published by Faber and is available as a hardback, paperback, ebook and audio book.