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Words on the Move

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

By John McWhorter
15-minute read
Audio available
Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter

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.

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

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

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

By John McWhorter
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Words on the Move: Why English Won’t – and Can’t – Sit Still (Like, Literally) by John McWhorter
Synopsis

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.

Key idea 1 of 9

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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