Review of David Crystal's Words in Time and Place

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In his latest book, Words In Time and Place, David Crystal wants to take his readers on a journey from early recorded uses to modern variations of synonyms for words or ideas such as nose, money, bad weather, spacecraft, toilets and drunk.

Test your etymological knowledge

As a fun little test for yourself, try to categorise these words into the aforementioned categories: Kocay, spiflicated, lunik, boko, rhino, oragious.
For a bonus point, guess the decade of each word's first recorded use.

Answers at the end of this post

Each chapter is dedicated to one word or idea, and Crystal sets out synonyms in chronological order, with extra titbits to intrigue the reader.

With his introductions he weaves together an overall picture of the historical variations and changes, and highlights interesting groupings. For example, the only job-specific expressions for being drunk come from the navy.

In another example, he focuses on how old people used to be described with terms of respect but as the 'cult of youth' took over, and it became more common to actually have old people around, more contemptuous words came into use.

The book is clearly a labour of love, and at the beginning Crystal goes into great depth about dictionaries, the thesaurus he likes, what a historical dictionary is, and how they all come together.

With each entry he has clearly found out much, found it interesting, and whittled it down for us into a few key facts.

However in whittling down so much and including so many entries, he makes it hard to really connect with the language he analyses.

The crux of the book is this: if you want to know what came first, 'relic' or 'old fogey', you'll like this book. If you are interested in the synonym for hotel 'fondaco' and its Arabic and Italian roots, you'll like this book. If you want to be able to swear at people in mid-15th century slang, you'll like this book. If you chuckle at the fact that there was a 15th century figure called Geoffrey the Grammarian of Norfolk, this book is for you.

However, if you're looking for a history of how the English language itself evolved, or an in depth look at dialectic or colloquial evolution, this is not the book for you.

This book is specific. Highly specific. It will tell you all the variations of a word. 100 entries later, done, thanks, next word? After one or two chapters I had to stop for a rest and pick it up again the next day as I had so many words swimming around my head I thought I'd actually fallen into the historical dictionary Crystal raves about.

It doesn't weave overall threads. It weaves chapter threads, and it doesn't always make these so overt. It is interesting as a linguistic historical work, and, don't get me wrong, it really is interesting for that reason, but I'd rather something with more applications if I'm honest.

For those looking to go on a more rounded journey through linguistic history, I'd recommend starting with Crystal's earlier work, Stories of English. Alternatively, Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson is even more accessible, and as a bonus it's funny too!

As a pick-up-and-read-a-chapter-on-occasion book though, Words in Time and Place would make quite a good gift for the English language geek in your life.

Dare I even call it a good kocay book?

Etomology quiz answers:


Kocay: toilet (c.1440). Spiflicated: drunk (c.1906). Lunik: spacecraft (originally Russian, c.1959). Boko: nose (c.1859). Rhino: money (c.1628). Oragious: bad weather (from a French word, c.1590).
(Examples taken from Words in Time and Place, David Crystal, OUP 2014)

Words in time and place David Crystal cover

Words In Time and Place by David Crystal, OUP Oxford (18 Sep 2014), 304 pp, £10.99, September 2014, ISBN

1 Comment

Alex H

Alex H

December 3, 2014 09:12

David Crystal is great, isn't he? Surely one of the most productive scholars out there... his Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language is an excellent intro to the language.

Re. the quiz - Interesting that 'rhino' wasn't related to 'nose', considering its Greek origins.

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