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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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 Clandestine Words This is a fun course, especially if you like etymology or simply admire the English language. I will admit to a great love of the English language. I enjoy a turn of the phrase and can admire the beauty of a well-spoken idea. I make my living with words and appreciate each like an astronomer appreciates each star in the sky—some are more interesting than others, but all have a story. The professor explored many words and phrases but also delved into the "why" of our word choices even exploring how words can have a physiological impact on us. The professor's presentation style was refined and made listening enjoyable. I looked forward to each lecture because I always learned something. Particularly great was what I learned: both fun trivia facts and insight into the function of the English language. This course is worth the time.
Date published: 2016-05-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A "Must" for Language Lovers This course delivers so much that it is hard to choose where to start. Dr. Curzan is an engaging, organized master of her topic and I learned a great deal--much more than I expected based on the course title. While I usually listen to Great Courses on long drives, this course was so intriguing that I "brought it into the house" and listened at other times to avoid having to wait. The course is a journey of how English develops over time, how dictionary authors determine what words are added or deleted, how we as speakers evolve the language, and much more. For me the most rewarding part was how Dr. Curzan challenges sacred "rules" of usage, sometimes making me uncomfortable but ultimately expanding my ability to think critically about how we determine those rules -- and when they should change.
Date published: 2016-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A glorious reveling in words As soon as I finished this course I wanted to start over from the beginning and listen to it again. And I will repeat it; I just have too many other fun courses to work through first. Professor Curzan is deeply knowledgeable in her field and has a pleasant and engaging delivery, but what I liked most about her was her was the obvious pleasure she took in language and words. I feel exactly the same way. It's hard to pick out specific things to comment on because she packed so much into each lecture, but there were a few things that stood out for me: -In one lecture, she went through the alphabet and came up with a language for each letter (ex. "A"-Arabic) from which English had borrowed words, even for the tricky letters like "x" and "q" -In another lecture she explained the difference between "lay" and "lie" in such a way that I finally "got it" -In yet another lecture she discussed the role of phrases like, "I mean, you know" and, "". I had no idea they had an "official" role, much less a name ("discourse markers"), and coming from the generation that brought "like" into every part of conversation possible, I found this lecture particularly fascinating If you are a word or language lover, I can't recommend this course highly enough to you,
Date published: 2016-03-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Light and frothy The course was surprisingly light, with little content and not much that was interesting. I have greatly preferred other linguistics courses, particularly those of John McWhorter. The middle third was the most interesting - information about the different phases of English borrowings, from Germanic borrowings of Latin to the Norman invasion to the Latinate borrowings of the Renaissance. But too many of the earlier and later lectures were rather dull lists of words. I was particularly disappointed in the last third of the course. There was very little that I found interesting about listing words in various categories: slang, jargon, love, war, politics, etc. Unlike some reviewers, I did enjoy her explanation of how language reflects society or perhaps helps shape it. Her examples dealing with women and race were interesting. I suspect that people who disliked this don't find it comfortable to have their world views challenged. But that is part of what education is for.
Date published: 2016-02-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you love words, this is for you! I don't remember not being able to read as a child. I loved books and read everything I could get my hands on. After taking a couple of years of French in high school, I became fascinated with word etymology in English and the romance languages. This course was perfect. I am an engineer, not a linguist, so the course answered many questions and gave me many, many terrific insights into the English lexicon. If you love words, this course is fantastic. Professor Curzan actually sits on the committee that decides what words get into the dictionary. She is an expert's expert, and her lectures are wonderfully interesting.
Date published: 2016-01-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Holy schmoly! Prof.Curzan could not have been more professional and prepared. She has an accessible style that creates an engaging atmosphere. Prof. Curzan is a true gem and one you don't want to miss.
Date published: 2016-01-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantabulous This course is well organized, interesting and presented in an entertaining and informative manner. It is amazing to learn how new words are formed and old word fade away.
Date published: 2016-01-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Thank you for your return policy, you'll notice I've been very happy with 20 courses, but I am sorry to say it but I'd liked to return another. This is The Secret Life of words. I sampled about five lectures before deciding. It's not terrible, it just is very slow, and frequently a bit too cute for me and self referencing, all of which can be good for getting the attention of a freshman class and If recommend it to tht audience. The lecture titles, for example are clever but not helpful. The professor is likable and has some credentials of note but her material is not worthy of 36 lectures. Even 24 would be a lot if she could move them along. The problem is not that she talks slowly -- that is easy to fix. She just uses too many words.
Date published: 2016-01-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from If you love words, you need this course Imagine sitting in school and listening to 12? 24? no, 36 half-hour lectures about English words. Think it would be boring? Would you be nodding off? Not if you are listening to Professor Curzan. Maybe you have to really love words to enjoy 18 hours of lectures about them, but I do love words, and I love this course. In fact, of the dozens of Great Courses I have done, this is my second favorite. Dr. Curzan is the perfect lecturer. She isn’t just knowledgeable and articulate but appealing and human. In her lecturing, she is poised, comfortable, personal and animated. She has feelings about word usages, for instance, and suggests that her audience might feel strongly about certain usages, too, either for or against. She anticipates our questions and even our objections and answers them persuasively and thoughtfully (though, I still have trouble treating “they” as a singular pronoun). At all times she is in command of herself, her audience and her material. I think that if the same material were presented by anyone less engaging, this course could be much less enjoyable. If I could, I would give six starts for presentation. The lectures cover everything you could ask about English. It’s not just word origins and meanings, though there is plenty of that. She also includes the human side of the language. Why do people play with words, changing them in the process? Believe it or not, there are actually rules people follow when they create slang or invent new words. When it comes right down to it, there wouldn’t be much to say in a course like this if language didn’t change over time. This is the third Great Courses course I have taken on language, (the other two were “History of the English Language” by Lerer and “The Story of Human Language” by McWhorter). They all contain the dominant theme of change – language evolves, especially English with all its borrowed (stolen? Shared?) words, as well as many other processes that Professor Curzan explains thoroughly. For me, that’s really a bitter pill to swallow, because as a lover of words, I also love to hear them used “properly,” that is, how I learned them in school fifty to sixty years ago. I cringe when I hear a person saying “lay” when the correct word is “lie,” or when someone starts a sentence with the word “me”. Where did these people go to school, anyway? In the end, these three courses are unanimous in affirming that not only is the English language continually changing, but change is legitimate, even inevitable. That is what language does. Just because people now say things that would have been considered egregious errors when I was learning English in school, that doesn’t mean that they are considered errors now. McWhorter surprised me at first with his attitude, basically, “Anything goes. Get over it.” Professor Curzan is a little more sympathetic. Yes, these changes are happening, and there are lots of people who resist what they perceive to be a degradation in our language. Instead, though, look at the changes as the creativity of the people who speak the language. We are adapting English to our own culture and life style. It says what we are (though that can be different in different regions or within different cultural groups). English really is a wax nose. I would recommend a video version of this course. When Dr. Curzan discusses the history of a word, or its relation to other words, the spellings are shown on the screen. You can easily see the differences, and how it may have changed over the years. This would be more difficult it you only heard the lecture. So, if you love words (and if you don’t, why are you reading this?) get this course.
Date published: 2015-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Secret Life Plenty Lively This Great Course had a rather different ‘feel’ to it that the dozens of others I’ve enjoyed. I think that was because, as Dr. Anne Curzan presented information, it felt as though she was teaching me about myself, or at least about the whole company of English-speaking North Americans of which I am a part. This was like having personal characteristics ‘mirrored,’ or better yet ‘echoed,’ back to me. The course was thoroughly enjoyable; some notable highlights were: * the sharing of curious and fascinating anecdotes about words, such as the surprising back story on how and why the word 'colonel' has come to be spelled and pronounced as it is. * insights as to how linguists go about their work. * advice on how any interested persons might go about doing their own linguistic research. * a wealth of historical information about the roots of the English language, its enrichment through the adoption or sharing of words from other languages, its past and ongoing evolution, and some evident current trends in its development. * appreciation of just how rich the English language has grown to be, with a larger lexicon by far than that of any other language in the world. * perspectives on how one’s inflections, gestures, and manner of using words affect what one’s words actually communicate. * how the vocabulary and character of language used in special contexts can subtly (or even insidiously) shape one’s thinking—examples: the language of politics, the language of war, the language of sports, the language of love, etc. I realize that studying Dr. Curzan’s course has actually changed me. I now am far less likely than formerly to try to demand that people preserve only those conventions of the English language that I was taught (decades ago!) were ‘correct.’ I understand now that what is correct is ever-changing, and that whatever communicates maximally and most dynamically in the here-and-now is worthy of consideration.
Date published: 2015-12-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from American English Overall I enjoyed this course as I continue to be fascinated by the English language. However this course might be better titled the Secret Life of American words as this was a course primarily about American English aimed at contemporary college students. I would have loved to learn more about English as used in other English-speaking countries.
Date published: 2015-04-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It's a winner! Although I have many great courses, this is only the second I bought in audio format ( the first was Dr. Paxton's "1066" also great). I listened to it on my commute to work, and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact , I found myself sneaking out to my car on lunch breaks to catch the next lesson. The lecturer is superb ! She is engaging , articulate, and clearly in command of the material. Her take on the English language was enlightening. Specifically, the idea that language is always changing and there will always be those who see the "new" as being somehow a degradation of the "proper" form. (Who knew that Benjamin Franklin was horrified by the use of the word 'notice' as a noun?) The lecturer is not only knowledgeable but open minded; she recognizes that slang is both playful and irreverent, while also being systematic. This course was an eye opener and also just plain fun!!
Date published: 2015-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from College was never like this! Having been a science major in college, I had little time for courses like this. I found the history and origin of words fascinating and was amazed at the subject matter and its depth. One never would think that words have a "birth" and "death" and are voted upon to attain the favored "word of the year." Overall, this course was fun! Professor Curzan made it so.
Date published: 2015-04-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Secret Life of Words Very informative. Professor has a sing song type voice presentation that is for me very difficult to listen to for anlength of time, however, she does keep my interest so I give it four stars..
Date published: 2015-03-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Descriptivism as a Philosophy of Language My problem with these lectures is not so much the presentation, which is very good, but with the extreme descriptivist stance of Dr. Curzan. According to her position (which admittedly is narrowly focused on spoken and not written English), there is no such thing as right and wrong or elegant and banal in speech. It's all determined (to put it one way, by whether any of her current students use a new word or corrupt an existing word or mispronounce a word. Indeed, "corrupt" and "mispronounce" would not be in her vocabulary at all, a position she returns to in nearly every lecture. Aks is fine for ask, larnyx is fine for larynx, "car car" is a legitimate word, and surely there is nothing objectionable about "unique, uniquer, uniquest." Descriptivist linguistics is very similar to cultural relativism - no basis exists for placing one culture above another, for rejecting one as evil and accepting another as elevated. Her stance on all these matters is internally consistent. But what I object to is that Dr. Curzan seems to think no other position is possible or defensible. Language is just what she says it is, and that's that. But of course other views are not only possible by justifiable. Language is NOT just a form of communicating - it's also a form of art that can be beautiful and lasting or ugly and forgettable. Beauty and elegance of expression have intellectual power that is derived from word choice and to a degree even from pronunciation. Winston Churchill might have said simply, "we will fight those evil Germans everywhere" and saved some words in his speech about the fall of France. The meaning is essentially the same as what he did say on that occasion: We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” I wonder how many terrified Britons would have been comforted by the shorter version. It certainly wouldn't have disturbed Hitler, who was troubled by "we shall NEVER surrender." I'm sure being a descriptivist linguist #the label is almost useless now as the prescriptivist camp seems to have emptied out# is fun and fascinating in its way. Yet I think descriptivist linguistics is relatively useless as a human endeavor - it's more a hobby than a discipline. Surely it has no claim to an unassailable position on what human values are inherent in our use of words. Listening to these lectures, I feel rather like a nonbeliever listening to a religious fanatic. Since I don't share the belief of the speaker that her faith must be the true one, we have no common ground whatsoever.
Date published: 2015-03-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating and Fun The title of this course might suggest a narrow focus on English etymology, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact it is a wife-ranging overview of many important topics in linguistics, with particular focus on questions of prescriptive vs. descriptive study of language, standard vs. colloquial and slang forms, and deliberate attempts at language reform. Professor Curzan is a gifted and intelligent teacher, whose enthusiasm for her work and her subject is infectious.
Date published: 2015-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Curzan is the best This is another of The Great Courses that you just can't let go of. It just gets better and better as you go from one lesson to the next. Definitely I'll be going back to this once I finish the other two that I bought at the same time. A real winner!
Date published: 2015-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Marvelous! It's a pleasure to watch Anne Curzan sharing her passion! I am a french speaker and I was not sure I would be able to understand all the subilities of the content but It is so well done, so simply presented, with a lot of exemples, that I have to refrain myself not listening the whole courses at one time!
Date published: 2014-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic Course This was a super learning experience. Professor Curzan is very knowledgeable, energetic, and has really good presentation skills. She avoids neither the difficult nor the controversial. This was yet another way to walk through history.
Date published: 2014-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Words -- A Passion of Communication Excellent course regarding English usages, origin, and future life. Dr.Curzan knows her topic and presents what could be a dry subject with humor and enthusiasm. I know much more about many of the words I use everyday and her lectures encouraged me to continue research beyond the classroom. Well done Dr. Curzan.
Date published: 2014-12-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lectures for anyone interested in words This course is my linguistic cup of tea! I have adopted into my vocabulary quite a few of the new expressions that Dr. Curzan discusses in her lectures. My favorite is "Recombobulation Area", a playful, creative name for the place at the airport, beyond the scanners, where you put yourself back together -- put on your shoes and belt, and reorganize your computer into its case. What a great word for something that heretofore was lacking in our language. If I lived near the U of Michigan, I'd take every course Dr. Curzan offered!
Date published: 2014-12-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful, easy-to-follow course I would highly recommend "The Secret Life of Words." One of the best things about this course is that you don't have to follow the chapters in order. I listen to this course while I walk my dogs. Each chapter is a contained unit, so I can just click on any chapter and listen. The professor is fully engaged in her lectures; her lectures are fascinating and spoken with enthusiasm.
Date published: 2014-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good, But Not Quite Perfect Professor Curzan provided a terrific overview of the origin and history of words in the English language, how words and their meanings have evolved over time, and language's role in maintaining and challenging societal norms. A 36-lecture course allows for broader coverage than a typical 24-lecture offering, which the professor takes advantage of by going into depth on topics such as slang (two lectures), spelling (two lectures), and specialized language (five lectures on topics including sports, the internet and politics). I also enjoyed her lecture on lexical gaps, where there is no English word for commonly discussed topics. Though I remembered Rich Hall's "sniglets" from Saturday Night Live back when it was funny, I hadn't seen an academic discussion of the broader topic of lexical gaps before. Professor Curzan also spends all or part of several lectures on gendered communication, highlighting the history of separate words for male and female workers (waiter vs. waitress), job titles that assume a male worker (fireman and mailman), and other topics referring to language the form verification algorithm made me change. I thought she presented a feminist critique of gendered language in an even-handed manner while directly stating how she viewed certain words, constructions, and assumptions. This course is very good, but the professor has a tendency to hesitate part-way through a sentence before continuing. I have the same issue when I speak, usually because my mind moves on to my next statement before I've finished the current one. She cleaned up her presentation quite a bit in later lectures, but it's something to watch out for in the future. I'm happy to recommend The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins. Professor Curzan covers many topics not seen in other series and offers useful insights into topics mentioned in other Great Courses offerings.
Date published: 2014-11-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Is "gonna" the same as "going to'? This course won over both my husband and myself when Professor Curzan pointed out that "gonna" is not the same as "going to". I'm going to get groceries implies you are acting immediately. I'm gonna get groceries is in the indefinite future. We sat in the car for an extra 5 minutes to finish a lecture and often want to immediately listen to the next lecture. If you enjoy learning about your language, this is an immensely enjoyable course.
Date published: 2014-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Funny and Fun This course is great. I listened to a lot of it on a trip from California to North Carolina. My daughter was driving, and I listened on my headphones. I kept bursting out laughing in the passenger seat next to her, and she'd look at me like I was nuts. Then I started sharing what I was listening to with her, and she loved it as well. She's a college student, so the lecture on the word "like" in its many forms was quite relevant! I told my son about the "recombobulation area" at an airport (Milwaukee?), and he had fun concocting similar words. For instance, a person who is calm in all situations is "indiscombobulatable." The lecturer's observations about how words are used, like illness being framed in terms of war and battles, are spot on, and I had a lot of "Aha!" moments when she articulated ideas that I'd had but was never able to put into words. If you enjoy words, this course is definitely for you.
Date published: 2014-11-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from On My Top 10 List I will "take" any course this prof teaches. Learned lots and enjoyed it tremendously. More please! We own over 75 Great Courses (we've been watching one lecture each evening for years), and this is easily in our all-time top 10.
Date published: 2014-11-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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
Date published: 2014-10-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-10-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining and informative Professor Curzan is a delightful person and an excellent lecturer. The content of the course was excellent. Distractions: She can't seem to stand still, and saunters constantly about while speaking. This is a distraction that caused me at times to concentrate on her gait and forget her words. She explains the usage but then forgets that educated listeners still think that "going to" is preferable to "gonna." I have other Courses and noted the movements, gestures, etc. of the speakers. Granted, the lecturers can't just stand and stare at the camera. Mostly, they are effective, with a few eccentricities (Greeenberg is fun to watch, although he's facing the "wrong" camera about half the time.)
Date published: 2014-10-10
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