Words on the Move Book Summary - Words on the Move Book explained in key points
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Words on the Move summary

John McWhorter

Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally)

4.7 (52 ratings)
21 mins

Brief summary

'Words on the Move' by John McWhorter is a fascinating exploration of the ways in which language changes over time. From slang to grammar, McWhorter shows how our usage reflects culture and history.

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    Words on the Move
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    Emotional self-expression might be new in art, but it’s been central to language since the Dark Ages.

    Sometimes it feels like every second person wants to be an artist these days. That’s partly because it’s one of the few jobs which really encourages emotional self-expression.

    But art wasn’t always like that. In fact, emotions only took center stage fairly recently.

    Medieval artists, like thirteenth-century Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone, weren’t all that interested in how individuals felt. What occupied them were the great questions of human life. Above all, that meant religion.

    Things started changing around the time Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1505. The work is famous for its subject’s coy smile. The individual is front and center, making the painting pretty atypical, and for that reason, it’s often regarded as marking a new, more individualistic era in the arts.

    After that, there was no going back. From the Renaissance to Tolstoy’s intimate 1877 work Anna Karenina, individuals and their feelings have had pride of place in our art.

    While individuality and expressing emotions are relatively recent phenomena in art, they’ve been central to the way we speak for centuries.

    Take the word “well.” Speakers of Old English were using it in the early medieval period, though they spelled it “wel.” So what does it mean?

    Think of the sentence “Well, horses run fast.” Imagine trying to explain to a toddler what the word “well” is doing here. Pretty tricky, right? That’s because, unlike “horse,” it’s hard to pin it down to a single meaning.

    It only really makes sense in the context of a previous remark or question, like “Why don’t horses get eaten by wolves?”

    What it suggests is an attitude. By using “well,” the speaker is being gracious about another person’s ignorance of a given subject. That means this short four-letter word does a lot of heavy emotional lifting. It lets us correct someone without offending him.

    That makes it a unique expression of the way our feelings and emotions are embedded in the language we use!

    In the following blinks, we’ll delve a little deeper into the subjective world of feeling in language.

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    What is Words on the Move about?

    Words on the Move (2016) is a whistle-stop tour through the history of the English language, from its Anglo-Saxon roots to global lingua franca. Packed with illuminating insights into the evolution of words and meaning, John McWhorter’s entertaining look at language dispels plenty of myths along the way. He argues that emoticons and the new use of “like” aren’t a threat to our language, but quite the opposite – they’re the latest chapters in a story of endless evolution.

    Words on the Move Review

    Words on the Move (2016) explores the ever-evolving nature of language and how it shapes our world. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With a focus on linguistic diversity, it reveals how language changes and adapts, reflecting shifts in culture, technology, and society.
    • By examining popular phrases and idioms, the book uncovers their surprising origins and meanings, providing fascinating insights into our everyday language.
    • Through vibrant storytelling and interesting anecdotes, it presents linguistic concepts in an engaging and relatable way, ensuring that reading about language is never dull.

    Who should read Words on the Move?

    • Language learners and enthusiasts
    • Anyone who’s wondered where words come from
    • History buffs

    About the Author

    John McWhorter is a professor of English literature at Columbia University. He’s best-known for his writing on the English language and its history. His previous books include The Language Hoax (2014) and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009). McWhorter is also a regular contributor to major newspapers including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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    Words on the Move FAQs 

    What is the main message of Words on the Move?

    The main message of Words on the Move is that language is always evolving and the way we speak reflects our culture and society.

    How long does it take to read Words on the Move?

    The reading time for Words on the Move varies depending on your reading speed, but it typically takes several hours. However, the Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Words on the Move a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Words on the Move is a fascinating book that explores how language shapes our world. It's definitely worth reading if you're interested in linguistics and cultural anthropology.

    Who is the author of Words on the Move?

    The author of Words on the Move is John McWhorter.

    What to read after Words on the Move?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Words on the Move, here are some recommendations we suggest:
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