The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

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

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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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Your professor

Anne Curzan

About Your Professor

Anne Curzan, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 121.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Many words, diverse origins, so much to learn I watched this course several times and my grandchildren joined me on many occassions. We enjoyed the course very much and watched some parts more than once. The course covers so many facets of the English language and its usage in a thorough manner.
Date published: 2019-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mind Expanding! This is a very rich program. I love it! Much more than a study of words. It has opened my eyes to how much our choice of words directs our view of the world. The benefits far exceeded my expectations. Thank you for this beautiful course.
Date published: 2019-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun and informative course I already had this myself and bought it for my daughter. She still has a CD player in her car and wanted a course for her commute. The professor has a breezy, hip way of presenting material. It is easy to listen to, but also very informative. Even my husband, who is not into self improvement per se, enjoyed listening. Frequently the newer courses seem a bit light to me, but I would highly recommend this.
Date published: 2018-12-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Some good, some weak. This first half or so was pretty good, but once she gets into her riffs on slang/current usage, with her takes on their social and political implications, it get pretty weak. I found myself just skipping through several of those. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, and I could have covered the same things by talking to my grandkids.
Date published: 2018-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Interesting This is a very good read. It has something for everybody--except for those of us who live in Hawai`i. Even Alaska got a mention with kayak. We always get left out.
Date published: 2018-09-03
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyed Learning the Secret Life of Words I purchased this quite some time ago and just listened to it for a second time during my daily commute. I thought the course was fun and it was interesting to hear about the history and origins of words we use all the time. It made me more aware where specific words came from and how we use language and how it is changing all the time. It also gave me additional resources to continue the learning process in the suggested readings. I think it would be interesting to see an updated version with some of the new words in recent years.
Date published: 2018-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and delightful This course is absolutely wonderful! Professor Curzan, through exploration of different words, uncovers an untold number of layers in the art of English language Archaeology: from the Germanic origin in the context of the Saxon and Angle invasions of Britain, she quite methodically goes over the different sources of the English language which make it such a rich and fascinating language: the Celtic influences from the native occupants of Britain, the Greek and Latin influences originating from the Christian bible and science, and the French originating from the 1066 invasion of William the conqueror. All of this history is brilliantly woven into the narrative of English vocabulary narrative. The history, however, is only one fascinating aspect. Many other have to do with Socio-Linguistic processes and how they affect the English vocabulary through slang, but also through other more formal and nuanced processes. In many lectures, she shows how much the English language simply acts as a sponge - literally adopting ad-lib words from different languages. Yiddish is one good example out of many. One aspect I found particularly fascinating is how more formal bodies, such as dictionaries, cope with language transformation and more specifically, with word transformation, extinction, and recognition. This is the first course I have heard by Professor Curzan. I found it to be beautifully crafted and delivered; fascinating, enjoyable, and delightful. I will be seeking out her other courses in the future…
Date published: 2018-06-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Do I Speak "Modern" English? (no) In this course I found so many new ways of "wording" my speech! Some I like. Some are sharp. Some I shall pass on using - at least while they are so new. But as I have learned, the language is forever changing and will continue to do so whether any one of us agrees or no. So I shall adapt, though maybe slowly, to releasing the "true English" I learned so many years ago. But in many ways that's a relief - no really! While Professor Curzan's course is a stand alone course, I found that I greatly benefitted from previously having taken Professor Lerer's course "The History of the English Language", 2nd Edition. His course covers "from way back when" to "today some years ago". One might entertain this option if Professor Curzan's course is being considered for procurement.
Date published: 2018-06-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Wide Ranging but Spotty A fair amount of these lectures were very interesting, but some seemed a bit more like "filler". Then again, I'd never heard the term "musquirt" and consider that a gem! If you've heard Prof. McWhorter's lectures, you come armed with knowledge that is helpful, but sometimes repetitive (not her fault of course!). As a lecturer I'd say she'd a strong B. (But I do wish Prof. Curzon would lose the "uptalk" that creeps in from time to time.)
Date published: 2018-02-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Pedestrian I expected to learn some real etymologies, instead I was constantly reminded that our language "changes", a process the professor considers evolution. This was a disappointing course. I would like to mention another course, one that I didn't buy but was given as a present: The Mathematics of Games and Puzzles. Except for some elementary computations of probabilities, there is little or no mathematics. I was especially disappointed with the treatment of Rubik's cube.
Date published: 2018-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating! My husband and I both found this to be one of our favorite Teaching Company courses. Professor Curzan is very chipper and light-hearted in her delivery, and has amazing breadth of knowledge.
Date published: 2018-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyed the course. Tiny niggle - Dr Curzan has coined the word "englishified", which she does admit she made up when there is already a word for it - anglicised. This is an interesting choice for a linguist. Maybe she is trying to demonstrate the possible creation of a new word. Even with that it was still really good viewing.
Date published: 2017-12-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This course has been an enjoyable adventure into the secret life of words. The presentation is clear and professional and shows a bit of humor with stories of the origin and use of the words we use.
Date published: 2017-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting course & great Professor We're only 5 lectures in but love this course. It is very thought provoking. The lectures are well organized and well presented. We'll look for other courses by this professor.
Date published: 2017-11-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the most enjoyable courses I’ve taken I purchased this course after hearing a sample lecture. I was intrigued by the subject matter and was not disappointed with this course. I downloaded this course and listened to it on a long car trip and I’m glad I did. Many of the lectures will have you thinking about language and communication as you never did before. I find myself now looking for ‘discourse markers’ and regional phrases when I’m listening or engaging in conversation. I highly recommend this course for anyone interested in learning why we say the things we do (or don’t).
Date published: 2017-11-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from We learned from and enjoyed this class We are not English majors, more science based, but we really liked this class. If the instructor taught another Teaching Company class we would take it. She made the subject alive by making some of the content more personal. We got a sense of how words change and morph into what we use in language today. This made us more aware that language is a living/changing entity, not static as you learn in class.
Date published: 2017-11-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Words We Use and How They Got that Way I've worked with words most of my adult life and played with words even as a child, so this was has been an engaging series of talks. Anne, if I may be informal, is delighted by language and that comes across clearly. The first or second year student who enrolls in the class these lectures are taken from would lose some of the prescriptiveness that is an unfortunate part of high school English. I note these oddities that were not something that Anne Curzan could control: Some of the generic cut-in video clips are silly at best; one episode had substandard audio; and in some of the long shots a clock in the background always shows 8 o'clock. Tempus, I suppose, was not fugiting.
Date published: 2017-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredibly interesting if you are a lover of words As an English teacher, I work to foster a love of words, etymology, and arcane lore in my students. This series is chock-full of such things, and delivered in an easy-to-enjoy demeanor. It's not only fascinating to me, but my students love the tidbits I bring in to share with them. Highly recommended!
Date published: 2017-08-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent course with only a few disappointments Professor Curzan is a very entertaining teacher with a wide knowledge of the English Language. The course covered a wide range of topics associated with English as a living evolving language. As an Australian I wasn’t aware of the some of the internal complexities of American English and found some of the lectures on this topic a bit difficult to follow. Since doing the course I have been watching the series “Fargo” on TV and now appreciate the different version of American English in that part of the country. The case against a prescriptive view of English is very convincingly made. I intend to use some of the arguments when others try to correct my speech suggesting there is some perfect unchanging version of English. I would have to agree with some other reviewers that Professor Curzan came across as second wave feminist in the course and some of her lectures supported such as a cause. In other Great Courses I have noticed a right wing political undertone creeping in. Being a bit left wing myself I can handle a bit of bias in that direction but I can see how it could be annoying to others.
Date published: 2017-08-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this! Fascinating and well presented. Very entertaining.
Date published: 2017-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One word - FUN To put it in one simple word, this course is FUN. Professor Curzan clearly enjoys her work, and while she never tells a joke (that I can recall), you frequently get a sense that there is a wry smile on her face. Those who have seen the video version can tell me if I am right. If I am wrong, at least I can say that she frequently made me smile when she revealed various obscure but entertaining facts about the language we speak and write. The course touches on the history of English, and there is some overlap with Seth Lehrer’s course “The History of the English Language,” which I also highly recommend. This course gets much more into the details of why words are spelled the way they are, how we form plurals and past tenses, how we form new words, and things of that sort. She also spends some time describing the nuts and bolts of making dictionaries, which I found interesting. Her Lecture 12 on borrowings from A to Z was a tour de force in which she cites a language starting with each letter of the alphabet and lists words it has contributed to English. If I have to find something I found disconcerting, it would be that she seemed to much longer than necessary denouncing sexist language (Lecture 26), and I had no idea what she was talking about at the end of Lecture 29 on the language of love when she mentioned habitual thought as opposed to reflective thought. Everything else was very clear, very informative, and, yes, very entertaining.
Date published: 2017-05-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Well done The course is very informative. There are some acceptable problems with the delivery. That is, Professor Curzan like many women has a high pitched voice that is treated badly by microphones. Most top female performers learn to modulate their voices a bit lower to compensate, most professors don't. Professor Curzan should be aware that her high pitched emphasis on vowels is amplified to just short of a shriek. Fortunately, it does stop short, but for many of her colleges, it doesn't.
Date published: 2017-04-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Course on Why English is the Way It Is I purchased this course on a whim (had a few extra bucks left over from Christmas). I'd already listened to two of John McWhorter's (excellent) courses, so I roughly knew the territory of linguistics. However, this course delves much deeper into English - especially American English, covering where words come from, how pronunciation has and is changing, and addressing language evolution (as a part-time prescriptivist, some of the changes I like and some are like fingernails on a blackboard). Professor Curzan knows her stuff, but even more important to me is that she can present what she knows in a lively and engaging manner. Were I in Michigan and not in New York, I might try to sneak in on some of her lectures - I can only imagine what fun that would be. I love this course - I still have a few lectures to go - and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in how English got to be the way it is. Fascinating.
Date published: 2017-02-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Eye opener Professor Curzan has changed the way I view word usage for ever! I sought to increase my knowledge of words from a completely prescriptive position, but this course brought me awareness of the malleable and constantly shifting nature of our language past and present. Consequently, these lectures increased my tolerance towards those that use "incorrect" words or clauses and that, in turn, reduced my own anxiety about speech and grammar! I also want to acknowledge how Professor Curzan consistently used terms such as "gonna" and "inta" throughout her lectures. I doubt her mother would have approved, but this helped validate the course for me!
Date published: 2017-01-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enjoying The Secret Life of Words The lectures are weil done. The speaker seems quite knowledgable and is easy to understand.
Date published: 2016-10-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from secret life of words really enjoy the course- and the teacher keeps it interesting
Date published: 2016-10-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learning new things about English Am learning things about our English language that I never knew. It was surprising to find that more people who speak English speak it as a second language and that the number of these people is greater than those of us who were born to it.,
Date published: 2016-08-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Professor's voice drops way down at the end of sentences, such that the last words are difficult to hear. I had to go back and play them over again, sometimes more than once. Her content is very good, and I did not want to miss any of it.
Date published: 2016-06-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Only One Real Objection I have a good opinion of the lectures in this series but I object to the use of one word. Professor Cursan uses the term "epithet" in the lecture on Forbidden Words. She uses a definition which is correct, but not actually the first definition for this word in most dictionaries. She uses the word in a very negative way. When I heard her using it in this way, I was horrified because I practice a polytheistic religion. We study and greatly appreciate the thousands and thousands of beautiful epithets of the Gods of our religion. We never use this word in the way that Professor Cursan uses the word. By popularizing the word "epithet" in this way, it will confuse the readers of many, many books about the deities of polytheistic religions who will wonder why these books are talking about the forbidden and abusive names for the Gods, only to find all the beautiful meanings. In addition, our religion is already subject to attacks from the monotheistic religions, so we do not appreciate a linguist creating an ugliness out of a simple term that is actually neutral in most situations.
Date published: 2016-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved this class! This was my first English language etymology class and I'm forever hooked. Great teacher, fun classes. There was no topic I've ever wondered about that she didn't cover.
Date published: 2016-05-10
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