Off-line Resources

(Book) Dictionaries

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Desk-top dictionary. Has a useful appendix of Indo-European roots, making it handy for tracing etymological connections among words. Also available for Macintosh and PC computers.

Webster's Third International Dictionary. Very large and comprehensive.

The Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition. The book version of the online edition, above. Over 20 volumes. Available in the reference room of the library. Not as good for searching as the CD-ROM, but more useful for reading without eyestrain.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Large two volume dictionary; a good substitute for the OED when you don't need all the quotations but would like the full etymology and definitions.

History of English

The Story of English 12 part PBS video series. In class, we view Part 3, Mother Tongue. Available for checkout in Fondren library (for in-library viewing or taking home overnight.)

Mother Tongue: The English Language by Bill Bryson. (Penguin Books, 1990.) Hilarious and irreverent introduction to the history of English.

The Life and Times of the English Language: The History of our Marvellous Native Tongue by Robert Claiborne. (Bloomsbury, 1991.) A wonderful read. Focuses less on the technical details and more on the sociohistorical context of the changing language.

A History of the English Language by Alfred Baugh and Thomas Cable. (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1993.) Comprehensive, yet readable.

Growth and Structure of the English Language by Otto Jespersen. (Ninth revised edition, Basil Blackwell, 1938.) Originally written in 1905, this is a classic little book that sums up all the periods of vocabulary borrowing as well as giving a sketch of word-formation processes and a few other topics. Written for the general public by the 20th century's greatest authority on the English language.

The Origin and Development of the English Language by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo. (4th edition, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1993.) A readable and thorough introduction to the history of English. Standardly used as a textbook for History of English courses (including at Rice.)

A History of English by Barbara Strang. (Methuen and Co., 1970.) Very linguistically-informed history, given in reverse order to the usual fashion of histories: starts with Modern English and ends with Germanic! Quite readable, and good for those who want to get into the subject in depth.

Early History of England

In Search of the Dark Ages by Michael Wood. (London: Book Club Associates. 1981. Based on a BBC series.) If you only ever read one book about the early history of England, this should be it. Here, particular eras are described in the form of dramatic narratives centered around the lives of particular actual historical personages. First comes the story of Boadicea, Queen of the British Celts, and her ferocious rebellion against the Romans. Then the equally compelling stories of the historical King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo Man (as reconstructed from the gorgeous artifacts in his royal burial), and King Offa, the mighty Mercian king. The drama of Alfred the Great and his struggle and eventual success against the relentless onslaughts of the Vikings is the unforgettable high point of the book. Finally, we learn about William the Conqueror's triumph over the Anglo-Saxons and eventual crushing domination of all those who refused to submit to his rule. Any of these stories can be read in isolation and all are excellent for giving the flavor of life in England in these earlier periods.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated and collated by Anne Savage. (Guild Publishing, London, 1983.) A Modern English rendering of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a history of England kept by monks during the dark ages in England. Sample Entries: Vikings Sack Lindisfarne. The famous Chronicle is a year-by-year narrative of what happened in England in Anglo-Saxon times. It was started in the 9th century (and selective entries dating back to Christ's birth were added at that time) and was stopped for unknown reasons in 1154. Has vivid descriptions of the Viking catastrophes and the Norman Conquest (featuring William's blitzkrieg through North England). This edition has illustrations, including some beautiful color photographs of the Sutton Hoo royal burial finds (Anglo-Saxon art, jewelry, weaponry etc.). Also has a good starter bibliography of works on the Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Worth having a look at, at the very least for the stunning illustrations.

London: The Novel by Edward Rutherford. (Crown Publishers, 1997.) A historical novel in which London is the backdrop to a series of stories about 6 fictional families and their ups and downs, intermarriages and enmities, through the last 2000 years. There are chapters on Roman London, Anglo-Saxon London, the Viking incursions, London at the Norman Conquest, during the Middle Ages, the Tudor period, etc., all the way through to the Blitz. The characters at each period are individuals yet maintain their ancestral family traits in an amusing way. The gradual merger of all the different populations that moved into England in the past two millenia can be seen on a human scale. This is a great way of learning about the history of England, especially the early part. The stories are well-plotted and will keep you reading. The book includes maps of Roman and Saxon London, Medieval and Tudor London, and Georgian and Victorian London, so you can see the development of the city at a glance. Many of the stories behind London's neighborhoods and place names are revealed in passing: Westminster, Newgate, Vauxhall, Cheapside, Blackfriars, Kensington, Chelsea...Your next trip to London will be immeasurably enriched.

English Language Generally

ENGLISH: History, Diversity, and Change by David Graddol, Dick Leith, and Joan Swann. (Routledge, 1996.) A nice broad-based guide to the language. Includes articles about the origins of English, English as a national language in various countries, varieties of English (differences in syntax, regional accents etc.), stylistic variation, orthographies of English, judgments of good and bad English and their role in society.

Words and their Ways in English Speech by J.B. Greenough and G. L. Kittredge. (MacMillan, 1901.) A good traditional sourcebook (in fact many later books take much of their material from this compendium) for discussion of borrowings, of semantic change, fossil morphemes, and other aspects of English. The lists of borrowings at different periods are very extensive. Although published at the turn of the century (and for a long time used as a college English textbook), much of the material is hardly dated.

Language Change

Language Change: Progress or Decay? by Jean Aitchison (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 1991) A well-written, lucid overview of language change for non-specialists. This is a very, very good book.

Linguistic Change, An Introduction to the Historical Study of Language by E.H. Sturtevant. A general introduction to language change, with good chapters on change of vocabulary and change of meaning. The other chapters help set the study of vocabulary into the study of language change as a whole. Watch Sturtevant's opinions about other cultures however: he kept the 19th century opinion about "primitive" vs. "advanced" cultures which 20th century linguists and anthropologists have long abandoned.

Authors of Books on Word and Phrase Origins

Ivor Brown Wrote many small handy books about word origins. (See Fondren's collection of his books, which is substantial.)

Eric Partridge Author of many books on language and etymology, including his classic Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. (New York: MacMillan).

John Moore Author of You English Words, a delightful romp through the undergrowth of the English lexicon across the centuries. Approach is socio-literary. Moore writes captivatingly about the color and power of particular words, about Shakespeare's word choice (why was the guy so great anyway? Because nobody has ever equalled his brilliant and innovative use of words!) and stylistic aspects of the lexicon.

Language Features in Magazines

The New York Times Sunday Magazine has a weekly column "On Language", usually written by William Safire. Safire's column is not just about words, but all aspects of language; but one thing he frequently does is notice new words and phrases coming into the language or changing their meanings. He also addresses grammatical questions, generally sensibly. Every once in a while he gets an etymology wrong, but he's on the whole very observant, intelligent, and entertaining.

The Atlantic Monthly has an end column on language that is useful.

Buzzwords. A feature in Newsweek with brief descriptions of the latest buzzwords in American society. Good for keeping one's finger on the national pulse--to find out what are our concerns of the moment. (These words are often highly ephemeral and therefore evocative of a very specific period/event, but some pass into the language for the longer term.)

Journals about English Words and Language

American Speech. Readable articles on various aspects of American English. Topics include well-researched word histories (like the story of 'OK'), dialectology, new words, changing grammar, etc.

Verbatim. A newsletter for word aficionados. Edited by Lawrence Urdang.

Word Usage

Language: the Loaded Weapon. The Use and Abuse of Language Today, by Dwight Bolinger. A wonderful book on the power of language by one of the most perceptive linguists of modern times (Bolinger died in 1991). Includes excellent treatments of metaphor/metonymy, language in advertising and the law, and linguistic prescriptivism. Bolinger advocates a sensible compromise position between hatred of all change and the anything-goes mentality that most people find anti-intuitive.

Usage and Abusage, by Eric Partridge. (Revised edition 1994, New York: Norton and Co.). Subtitle is "How to pick the right words --and avoid the wrong ones--in speech and writing." A very handy reference for becoming aware of all the shibboleths that people will use to decide you're uneducated.

Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language Used as Shield and Weapon, by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (Oxford University Press, 1991). A fascinating study of the ways people use language to either minimize offensiveness, or to maximize it. Topics covered include: taboo; euphemism in addressing and naming; the lexicon of bodily effluvia, sex, and tabooed body parts; insults and other ways of being abusive; death and disease and ways of talking about these concepts. Contains graphic language (to use a euphemism!).

Standardization, Prescriptivism, and Social Norms of Language

English: A Course for Human Beings by Eric Partridge. A practical introduction to English, good for brushing up on the basics of grammar. Also contains a nice chapter on English word formation processes.

The Proto-Indo-Europeans

In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology, and Myth, by J.P. Mallory (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989). Traces the immediate origins of the various Indo-European groups, and puts the case for his hypothesized I.E. homeland, using archaeological and linguistic evidence.

Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, by Colin Renfrew (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988). Presents his very original (and still controversial) hypothesis of the Anatolian origin of the Indo-Europeans. Places the Indo-Europeans several millenia earlier in history than other scholars, presenting multiple sources of evidence. Lively and readable.

See also work by Maria Gimbutas, who argues that the Indo-Europeans are one and the same as the people of the Kurgan culture, who left a great deal of archaeological remains.


The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, compiled by Jonathan E. Lighter. A landmark publication, summing up 3 centuries of American slang. The compiler calls slang "the technicolor of language", an apt metaphor.

Other Aspects of Words

Words and their Meaning, by Howard Jackson. (London: Longman, 1988.) A good introduction to a wide range of issues concerning words: Lexical semantics (how to analyze the meanings of words), word relations (synonymy, antonymy, and other sense relations), collocations (frequent expressions or combinations of words), dictionaries and lexicography. Very clearly written, with useful exercises.

Words in the Mind, by Jean Aitchison. A more psychological approach to words; describes various empirical findings (often via psychological experimentation). This is another well-written exploration of aspects of words and the lexical knowledge that speakers have.

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