NONFICTION

The Accidental Dictionary: The Remarkable Twists and Turns of English Words

Pegasus. Oct. 2017. 256p. bibliog. ISBN 9781681775692. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781681775852. LANG
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In this collection of short essays, author and etymologist Jones (Word Drops) sets out the etymologies of 100 common English words, demonstrating how meanings change during centuries of use. These surprising word stories show how definitions of even everyday terms appear then disappear, expand and contract, and develop and distort, making for pleasurable reading, especially owing to the author's lightheartedly learned style. Jones reports how the word girl was gender-neutral in the early 1300s and referred to both boys and girls in Chaucer's work. Jiffy originally referred to a flash of lightning, then morphed to "an instant," and in the early 1900s, was given a scientific definition of 33.3564 picoseconds—the time it takes light to travel one centimeter. Similarly, moment was originally defined as 90 seconds and myriad as 10,000. Prestigious derived from a Latin word for magic tricks, and in English originally meant deceitful, then changed to "dazzlingly influential." Oaf was once a kind of elf, while sad was first defined as satisfied.
VERDICT Recommended for word buffs and those interested in language change.

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