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The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

Professor Anne Curzan Ph.D.
University of Michigan
Course No.  2140
Course No.  2140
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

English is changing all around us. We see this in new words such as “bling” and “email,” and from the loss of old forms such as “shall.” It’s a human impulse to play with language and to create new words and meanings—but also to worry about the decay of language. Does text messaging signal the end of pure English”? Why do teenagers pepper their sentences with “like” and “you know”?

By studying how and why language changes and the story behind the everyday words in our lexicon, we can learn a lot about ourselves—how our minds work and how our culture has changed over the centuries.

Beyond this, words are enormously powerful. They can clarify or obscure the truth, set a political agenda, and drive commercial enterprises. They have the power to amuse and to hurt. They can connect us to each other or drive us apart. Sometimes words are unsayable, and other times words fail us completely because, for all the vibrancy and breadth of English, we still have major gaps in the lexicon.

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English is changing all around us. We see this in new words such as “bling” and “email,” and from the loss of old forms such as “shall.” It’s a human impulse to play with language and to create new words and meanings—but also to worry about the decay of language. Does text messaging signal the end of pure English”? Why do teenagers pepper their sentences with “like” and “you know”?

By studying how and why language changes and the story behind the everyday words in our lexicon, we can learn a lot about ourselves—how our minds work and how our culture has changed over the centuries.

Beyond this, words are enormously powerful. They can clarify or obscure the truth, set a political agenda, and drive commercial enterprises. They have the power to amuse and to hurt. They can connect us to each other or drive us apart. Sometimes words are unsayable, and other times words fail us completely because, for all the vibrancy and breadth of English, we still have major gaps in the lexicon.

In The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, you’ll get a delightful, informative survey of English, from its Germanic origins to the rise of globalization and cyber-communications. Award-winning Professor Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan approaches the subject like an archaeologist, digging below the surface to uncover the story of words, from the humble “she” to such SAT words as “conflagration” and “pedimanous.”

In this course, you’ll

  • discover the history of the dictionary and how words make it into a reference book like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED);
  • survey the borrowed words that make up the English lexicon;
  • find out how words are born and how they die;
  • expand your vocabulary by studying Greek and Latin “word webs”; and
  • revel in new terms, such as “musquirt,” “adorkable,” and “struggle bus.”

Professor Curzan celebrates English for all its nuances and curiosities. By stepping back to excavate the language as a linguist, she shows you there is no such thing as a boring word.

Chart the Story of Cultural Contact

Why do most words for animals in the field—cow, sheep, pig, deer—come from Old English while most words for meat on the table—beef, mutton, pork, venison—come from French? It turns out that when the Normans invaded England in 1066, their language infiltrated ours, and English owes much to the Norman rulers of the 11th and 12th centuries.

As you’ll learn in The Secret Life of Words, English is an omnivorous language and has borrowed heavily from the many languages it has come into contact with, from Celtic and Old Norse in the Middle Ages to the dozens of world languages in the truly global 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed, the story of English is the story of cultural contact, as you’ll see when you

  • meet the Norman-French rulers who gave us much of our language for government, politics, the economy, and law;
  • encounter the infusion of Latin and Greek during the Renaissance, which provided English the language of science, the arts, music, education, literature, and linguistics; and
  • take an A-to-Z tour of words from the world’s languages, from Arabic, Bengali, and Chinese to Yiddish and Zulu.

The world has never had a language as truly global as English, yet the language is not globally uniform. In addition to understanding the influence of cultural contact, you’ll learn about many of the regional differences within English, both inside the United States and throughout the world, with a specific look at British versus American English, the Midwest vowel shift, the synonyms of “y’all,” and more.

As Professor Curzan takes you through the centuries and around the world to reveal how our language came to be, she unpacks the myth that there was once a “pure English” that we can look back to with nostalgia. Even during the Renaissance, English purists were concerned about the infiltration of foreign words into English. You’ll delight in learning about the “ink-horn controversy,” named for the purists’ objections to long, Latinate words that required more ink to write.

This debate between the purists and the innovators has continued for centuries. Benjamin Franklin railed against using the word “notice” as a verb. Twentieth-century prescriptivists condemned the common use of the sentence adverb “hopefully.” And the stigma against the word “ain’t” is alive and well today. But are the prescriptivists right? Is English really in a state of decay?

See Why It’s an Exciting Time for English

Professor Curzan sympathizes with the impulse to conserve the old language, even citing the verb “interface” as one of the words she wishes would just go away. Yet despite this sympathy, she also recognizes the naturalness of change. Had the ink-horn purists had their way, we would be using Old English compounds such as “flesh-strings” for “muscles” and “bone-lock” for “joint.”

Because our language is always in flux, a study of English words allows you to trace

  • technological innovations—“app,” “Google,” and the prefix “e-”;
  • historical events—“chad,” “9/11,” and “bailout”;
  • cultural changes—“flexitarian,” “unfriend”;
  • human creativity and playfulness—“Googleganger,” “Dracula sneeze,” and “multislacking”; and
  • conversational discourse markers—“um,” “well,” “now.”

In fact, Professor Curzan points out that with the rise of electronically mediated communication, future linguists may look back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a key moment in the language’s history, as revolutionary as the printing press. Throughout The Secret Life of Words, she reflects on such questions as these:

  • Where do new words come from? Who has the authority to coin a word?
  • How have text messaging, social media, and instant messaging affected our use of language?
  • Who owns language? Can a corporation control a word?
  • Is it possible to reform language?

Along the way you’ll look at gendered language and how words such as “hussy” and “mistress” have become pejorative; Internet communications and the nuance to acronyms such as “LOL”; technology-inspired new language such as “texting”; taboo words; and the language of sports, politics, love, and war.

You’ll discover that far from being a mere practicality, wordplay is a uniquely human form of entertainment. This course provides a wonderful opportunity to study slang and the creation of new words. You may not come away using terms like “whatevs,” “traffic-lighty,” or “struggle bus” in casual conversation, but you’ll love studying the linguistic system that gives us such irreverent—and fun—slang, from “boy toy” to “cankles.”

A Vibrant, Professional Guide

At the heart of this course is the wonderful Professor Curzan. With energy, enthusiasm, and a democratic approach to language, she takes you on a journey from Beowulf and the Battle of Hastings to modern-day blogs and chat rooms. She brings you teenage slang and Internet-speak, and she delves deeply into the history of English and the field of linguistics.

As an award-winning professor, a member of the American Dialect Society, and a member of the American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel, Professor Curzan knows her material, and she presents a wealth of information in this comprehensive course. But since the material is so enjoyable—“geektastic,” you might say—it hardly feels like learning.

By course end, you’ll come away with a new appreciation for the many varieties of English, and you’ll be equipped with the tools to build on these linguistic foundations. From the subtle negotiation of a word like “well” in conversation to the hidden relationship between “foot” and “pedestrian,” once you begin to explore the secret life of words, your understanding of English will never be the same.

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Winning Words, Banished Words
    Where do words come from? How do they change over time? What counts as a word, anyway? Language is one of the things that reveal how our minds work, and by exploring the “secret life of words,” you’ll see the power of words—and what words can tell us about human history, technology, and culture. x
  • 2
    The Life of a Word, from Birth to Death
    Open the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find dead words such as “wittol” and distinctly contemporary words such as “ginormous” and “multislacking.” In addition to looking at the lifespan of words from birth to death, this lecture also considers “semantics”—the study of how words mean what they mean. x
  • 3
    The Human Hands behind Dictionaries
    Go behind the scenes of the world’s dictionaries and see the very human decisions that go into creating them. Lexicographers tend to take a descriptive approach to language and study how we use words, including slang. But as readers, we turn to the dictionary for a prescriptive guide on how we should use words. x
  • 4
    Treasure Houses, Theft, and Traps
    Look at the history of the English dictionary over the past 400 years, culminating with today’s online resources. You’ll meet the likes of Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster, discover the origins of American spellings, and hear the story of how the monumental OED was created. x
  • 5
    Yarn and Clues—New Word Meanings
    Did you know that “girl” used to mean “a child of either sex” or that “nice” used to mean “silly, foolish”? While some words are remarkably stable, many undergo semantic shifts. This lecture surveys the five major categories of semantic change: generalization, narrowing, amelioration, pejoration, and metaphorical extension. x
  • 6
    Smog, Mob, Bling—New Words
    Humans love to play with words, whether it’s to better express what we have to say or to show off a personal style. Study the ways in which new words are created, from combining, shortening, and functional shifts to blends, back formation, and reduplication. This rule-governed creativity gives us everything from slang to technology jargon. x
  • 7
    “Often” versus “Offen”—Pronunciation
    Turn from the origins of words to pronunciation and the system that underlies the variations in dialects. This lecture dives into such regionalisms as the Southern pen-pin merger and the Midwest vowel shift, as well as the socially constructed judgments people make about different dialects. x
  • 8
    Fighting over Zippers
    Who owns words? Is it our responsibility to protect brands such as Xerox and Google from legal misuse? Unpack the concerns about the proper use of trademarks and the process of “genericization,” whereby a word such as “zipper” moves from a proper noun to a generic term. x
  • 9
    Opening the Early English Word-Hoard
    Tour the history of English, beginning with its Germanic origins. The story of English is the story of borrowing words—first from Celtic and Old Norse and later from French and Latin. In this lecture you’ll see how Old English evolved as it came into contact with the Viking raiders and Roman traders. x
  • 10
    Safe and Sound—The French Invasion
    Continue your study of borrowed words by looking at the Norman invasion of 1066. For several hundred years, the Norman-French held sway over England and brought with them language in the realms of politics, government, law, economy, war, and religion, as well as a variety of idioms. x
  • 11
    Magnifical Dexterity—Latin and Learning
    Build your vocabulary with this lecture by surveying the influence of Latin on English during the Renaissance. English was gaining stature in part by borrowing specialized Latin words in the realms of science, music, education, and literature, but some purists argued that English didn’t need these “ink-horn” words. x
  • 12
    Chutzpah to Pajamas—World Borrowings
    English is truly a world language. Your study of borrowed words concludes with an A-to-Z look at world languages and their influence on contemporary English. You’ll be delighted to learn the origins of words such as “monkey business,” “flamingo,” “alligator,” and more. x
  • 13
    The Pop/Soda/Coke Divide
    No matter what you call it, the sugary carbonated beverage says something about where you live. The same is true for “y’all,” “you guys,” “yinz,” and “yous,” as well as for “subs,” “grinders,” “hoagies,” and “po’boys.” Explore America’s dialect maps and discover the country’s many regional varieties of speech, from the Deep South to Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. x
  • 14
    Maths, Wombats, and Les Bluejeans
    Step back and look at the many varieties of world Englishes. Whether English is the primary language (as in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and Australia), an official second language (as in India, Singapore, and Zimbabwe), or a widely spoken foreign language (as in China, Japan, and Germany), English is now truly global. x
  • 15
    Foot and Pedestrian—Word Cousins
    Linguists have borrowed the language of biology to trace the history of words—ancestors, family trees, variation, and selection. This lecture reflects on the blurry distinction between a dialect and a new language, then shows how systemic sound changes explain the etymological relationship between seemingly different—but related—words such as “hearty” and “cordial.” x
  • 16
    Desultory Somersaults—Latin Roots
    Unlock the English vocabulary with Latin “word webs,” a series of derivations that come from the same root. Knowing your Latin bases can help you solve puzzles about the relationship between English words such as “insult” and “resilient,” and it helps linguists trace a word’s meaning as it changes over time. x
  • 17
    Analogous Prologues—Greek Roots
    Shift your attention to Greek, which also heavily influenced the English language of learning. Here you’ll uncover a Greek treasury of language—including the word web around the root of “lexicon” (“lexicography,” “lexus,” “lexeme”). Then you’ll turn to the influence of Greek mythology on English. x
  • 18
    The Tough Stuff of English Spelling
    English spelling is full of irregularities—borrowings, unpredictable stresses, letters doing double duty, and vowel shifts. In this first of two lectures on spelling, examine the history of the English alphabet and the role of the Norman French, English scribes, and the printing press in creating our modern standardized spelling. x
  • 19
    The b in Debt—Meddling in Spelling
    In addition to the happenstance of English spelling, history is filled with examples of conscious meddling that attempted to standardize the system. In this second lecture on spelling, see how this meddling gave us “island,” “doubt,” and distinctively American spellings. x
  • 20
    Of Mice, Men, and Y’All
    Now turn to questions of usage and uncover the secret life of nouns. The Latin borrowing means the plural of “focus” is “foci,” but what do you do with the non-Latin “octopus”? Or “hippopotamus”? After studying history’s role in English plurals, consider the generic pronoun problem. Is “they” an acceptable substitute for “he or she”? x
  • 21
    I’m Good … Or Am I Well?
    Adjectives and adverbs are often the source of prescriptive angst. This lecture starts with the distinction between them before charting the history of the sentence adverb “hopefully” and intensifiers such as “really” and “wicked.” These examples, as well as concerns about fun/funner/funnest, reveal how people feel about changes in language. x
  • 22
    How Snuck Sneaked In
    Examine the system of regular and irregular verbs and how they move from one category to another—with a little help from the Old English system of weak and strong verbs. Then turn to the world of auxiliary verbs, where “shall” is in decline and “gonna” is on the rise. x
  • 23
    Um, Well, Like, You Know
    These little words don’t carry meaning like a noun, but they do help us organize our speech and set conversational expectations. You’ll never have another conversation without thinking about the negotiation that happens when speakers use words like “well” and “now,” and you’ll have a new appreciation for the grammatical utility of “dude” and “like.” x
  • 24
    Wicked Cool—The Irreverence of Slang
    How is the tone of “bootylicious” different from “incentivize”? Youthful, undignified, playful, and irreverent, slang is hard to define but serves an important purpose in our communications. Unlike jargon, slang is decidedly informal, and it has the power to oppose established authority and establish rapport. x
  • 25
    Boy Toys and Bad Eggs—Slangy Wordplay
    Survey the playful methods of creating new slang: rhyme (“brain drain,” “fat cat”), reduplication (“hanky panky,” “chit chat”), alliteration, combining, shortening, and more. Then step back and think about the differences between slang, jargon, and nonstandard dialects. Is a word like “ain’t” slang or something else? x
  • 26
    Spinster, Bachelor, Guy, Dude
    Take on one of the most pervasive binaries in the English language: male and female. This first lecture on gendered lexicon introduces the culture of patriarchy and its effect on English, from the pejoration of words such as “wench” and “girl” to the status of gendered pairings such as “governor” and “governess.” x
  • 27
    Firefighters and Freshpersons
    Is it possible to consciously reform language? While most efforts fail, the use of non-sexist language in American English is an exception, thanks to recent sociopolitical movements. This lecture introduces the scope of sexist language, its system of empowerment and disempowerment, and successful interventions. x
  • 28
    A Slam Dunk—The Language of Sports
    Dive into the language of sports, which is so enmeshed in our everyday usage that we don’t even pay attention to it. Go inside the world of baseball, boxing, football, basketball, tennis, and surfing and see what idioms we’ve borrowed into our nonathletic speech, from being “saved by the bell” to “throwing a curveball.” x
  • 29
    Fooling Around—The Language of Love
    Approach the age-old question of the meaning of “love,” but this time like a lexicographer. This lecture unpacks the nuances of this powerful word, the language of intimacy, and the variety of often ambiguous and euphemistic terms for sex. It concludes with an examination of our culture’s pervasive use of sports to describe dating. x
  • 30
    Gung Ho—The Language of War
    Contemplate the jargon and euphemisms that reflect the intense relationships and horrifying realities of war. Linguistic play has led to slang words such as “snafu” and “fubar,” while euphemisms such as “daisy cutter” and “collateral damage” add a layer of abstraction to the violence and death of war. x
  • 31
    Filibustering—The Language of Politics
    Political language matters. The terms you use shape the frame of the debate, which, in turn, can sway voters. Take a glimpse behind the stage of debate and learn about the surprising history of terms such as “right,” “left,” “liberal,” “lobbyist,” and more, and see how language brands hot-button issues such as the “death tax.” x
  • 32
    LOL—The Language of the Internet
    OMG. BFF. ROTFL. Thx. Now that 4 billion people have access to cell phones, we are writing more than ever, and with the rise of electronically mediated communication, the language is experiencing a flurry of change and innovation. While EMC is informal, rules and etiquette still apply. x
  • 33
    #$@%!—Forbidden Words
    In the most decorous of ways, delve into the world of taboo language—the inappropriate lexicon that has the power to make us laugh or blush, to offend or hurt, and to establish solidarity. After learning about the utility and ubiquity of such language, you’ll have the opportunity to reflect on the changing standards of What makes a word taboo. x
  • 34
    Couldn’t (or Could) Care Less
    Which phrase is correct? And does it matter? Idioms often take on meaning beyond the sum of their individual words. Step back from the language we use in everyday speech and discover the origins—and sometimes the false histories—of many of our common idioms. Then consider the importance of “lexical bundles” to language more generally. x
  • 35
    Musquirt and Other Lexical Gaps
    Have you ever thought, “There should be a word for ____”? This lecture explores some of the gaps in the English lexicon, as well as ways to account for such gaps. You’ll be surprised by how limited English can be, and you’ll take delight in the playful world of “sniglets”—words made up because they ought to exist. x
  • 36
    Playing Fast and Loose with Words
    Conclude your course by considering the creativity of Shakespeare. The OED credits him with making up 1,700 new words, but how many of those did he actually create? And do any of us have the authority to make up new words? You’ll also see how you can apply the linguistic tools from this course to investigate the living, changing language all around you. x

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Anne Curzan
Ph.D. Anne Curzan
University of Michigan
Dr. Anne Curzan is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English at the University of Michigan. She earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale University and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Professor Curzan has won several awards for teaching, including the University of Michigan's Henry Russel Award, the Faculty Recognition Award, and the John Dewey Award. Her research interests include the history of English, language and gender, corpus linguistics, historical sociolinguistics, pedagogy, and lexicography. In addition to writing numerous articles, reviews, and edited volumes, Professor Curzan is the author of Gender Shifts in the History of English and the coauthor of How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction and First Day to Final Grade: A Graduate Student's Guide to Teaching. Beyond her teaching and research interests, she is a member of the American Dialect Society and sits on the usage panel for the American Heritage Dictionary. She can also be found talking about language in her column, Talking About Words, in Michigan Today and on the segment, That's What They Say, on Michigan Radio.
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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 52 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Clever and articulate This is a surprisingly good class. It is much more organized and informative than it seems to be from the description. Its not really the "secret life of words" (ie- obscure stories of odd word origins) but a rather comprehensive linguistics course on English, esp. American language. The lecturer is very articulate (an you would assume) and takes a different viewpoint from (than? versus? instead of? in comparison to? in comparison with?) John McWhorter, the traditional Great Courses linguist. The material is different so it is worth getting both as they are not redundant. This course covers topics in more detail like US regional dialect, dictionary development and publishing, contemporary language such as Internet, texting, email, and the difficulties of English spelling. The lecturer has an enthusiastic personality and a deep understanding of her topic. You can see why she has won teaching awards at U of Michigan. She takes a definite "academic", scholarly approach while still being accessible and personable. I find it curious that she has come out with 2 courses at once, but they are both good, and also different. Usually the Great Courses offers one and then a few months later, a second one. If you have an interest in English/American language (history, usage, spelling, lexicon, dialect, contemporary vocabulary, and more) this is a great course! November 18, 2012
Rated 5 out of 5 by Don't miss this great course and lecturer. Dr. Curzan is outstanding, her voice is very pleasant, the timbre, inflections, all stir together for a wonderful 30 minutes, each and every lecture. From time to time she even injects humor as she relates a funny anecdote from old English. In no time at all, you will realize you have known her for a long time and she is an old friend. Enjoy this course and thank me later. Richard Harrington October 16, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fascinating This course is really interesting and just plain enjoyable. I learned a lot about how unwise it is to be too rigid about language use because language is a living, changing thing that can't ever be held in place for long. I always hated English classes, but this is totally different. It is basically a random walk through the science of Linguistics. An energetic and fun lecturer as well. October 14, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by A Really Good Show If your love is words, this is a very interesting course taught by an articulate Professor who also gesticulates very well and has neato graphics and demos. Referenced books and documents are also good, led me to "The Professor and the Madman"; a fascinating story about the greatest contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. October 13, 2014
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