From Publishers Weekly
English-speakers, especially Americans, are sometimes criticized because so many speak only one language, but in truth, English is a tongue composed of many others. Probably no one knows this better than those for whom etymology is their livelihood, such as these dictionary editors, and they draw on their collective experience of hunting down word origins, whether historical or linguistic, to produce this entertaining volume. Even those who arent wordy types may wonder where words like "namby-pamby," "milquetoast" and "hamburger" came from, and the explanations dont disappoint: poet Henry Carey first coined the term "namby-pamby" to make fun of 18th-century poet Ambrose Philips ("amby" standing for Ambrose); "milquetoast" derives from an English comic strip depicting a timid, retiring man named after a bland food; and "hamburger" comes from "a form of pounded beef called Hamburg steak" that people ate in (where else?) Hamburg, Germany. The brief introductory pages of general language history are somewhat dry, but the tone elsewhere is conversational and rarely technical. Some of the entries have straightforward histories that make one question their inclusion ("asparagus" and "iconoclast" are inherited from Latin and Greek respectively), or are hard to even really consider English (like "ciao" and "maharajah"), but often even then the editors include historical tidbits that add interest. Lovers of language, history and literature should appreciate this book, which is much easier to read and more intriguing than the etymological notes found in a regular dictionary.
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Did you know that cats are related etymologically to caterpillars? Or that Thomas Edison played a key role in popularizing the use of the greeting “Hello”? Or that muscles were originally mice, since a flexed biceps looks like a little rodent scurrying under the skin? Word Histories and Mysteries provides a panoramic view of the unique richness of English, uncovering the origins of five hundred everyday words whose surprising and often amusing stories offer insights into the history of humankind. Arranged in convenient alphabetical order, the notes are written in a lively and entertaining style perfect for browsing. The reader can learn how words were coined, or trace the origins of English back to the Indo-European language spoken long before the invention of writing. A short introduction outlines the techniques linguists use to trace the history of words, and a handy glossary explains the linguistic terms that describe the ways in which language changes over time. Photographs and drawings help familiarize the reader with the ancient objects or cultural practices from which our words have sprung. Fascinating and fun to read, Word Histories and Mysteries is an ideal gift for high school or college students interested in language and for anyone who wants to know more about the curious sounds we make to communicate every day.