by David Crystal

Oxford University Press


304pp/$27.95/September 2014

Words in Time and Space

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

In Words in Time and Place, David Crystal has taken the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary and excerpted fifteen terms from it to demonstrate the volume's usefulness as well as how intriguing the book is.  The project to create the HTOED began in the mid-1960s and took forty years to come to fruition.  The purpose of the larger book is to help track the linguistic changes and additions to words over the span of centuries.

Following a brief introduction, in which he explains, the concept, Crystal turns his attention to the first of the words he has excerpted, looking at synonyms for "dying."  To help illustrate the variety of words, before ever tackling the HTOED entries, Crystal quotes from Monty Python's 1969 "Parrot Sketch," in which an irate John Cleese is trying to return a dead bird to shopkeeper Michael Palin, running through a litany of synonyms for death.  Crystal's own exploration of synonyms begins with the ninth century King Alfred's use of the words swelt and forswelt, proceeding through common phrases such as "giving up the ghost" and archaic terms, such as disperish. 

The strength of Crystal's collection is not the simple listing of words, but his inclusion of source material, noting when a phrase was widespread or when it had only a single use, and explaining how the terms fit into the larger scheme of things.  Words which seem to no longer have any connection to the key word Crystal is discussing, can often be shown to have a link in a round-about away, often through other euphemisms. For instance, while “miscarry” currently refers to the death of a fetus, Crystal points out that when it was first used in the late fourteenth century, it could apply to any death. Other words are better known through alternate forms.  While “refection” dates to the fifteenth century as a term for a meal, it mostly remains in modern usage as “refectory.” Crystal repeats the same format for all of the terms he is exploring.

Although the main purpose of Words in Time and Place is to track the linguistic changes as euphemisms are piled on euphemism and loan words are brought into the English language, the book serves another important purpose:  entertainment.  Crystal's descriptions of words and their explanations are interesting in their own right as they expand the readers vocabulary and understanding of our language, often with the introduction of archaic and dead words and phrases. While it is conceivable that a reader could get the same information from the HTOED, at two large volumes and a nearly $500 price tag, it is far less accessible to the average and casual reader than Words in Time and Place.

In addition to tracking words through time, Crystal is also aware of words used in a limited geographic range.  He notes that the thirteenth century word “cang” was only use in the West of England.  Its definition is known because while the phrase “old cang” appears in one copy of the Ancrene Riwle, the phrase appears as “ald fol” in an alternative text. In Yorkshire, the term “rabbit” was used as a curse, which, of course, says something about the culture of the region.

Crystal provides an interesting look at the changes of language over the years, providing a context for the archaic words he discusses as well as an etymology for more common words.  Although the book can be read straight through, it can also be dipped into at random, although Crystal’s introductions to each section provide a useful and educational basis for his discussion of terms.

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