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The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

Hear the story behind the everyday words in our lexicon, and follow an award-winning professor as she demonstrates how much the evolution of our language can teach us about ourselves.
The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 149.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous Course! I bought it on Audio years ago. Liked it enough back then to listen again, and it's still great!! Now I'd like to get the transcript.
Date published: 2024-06-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fun Facts Warning: some of the words discussed in this course may not be suitable for polite society, as the expression goes. For this reason, I did not pass this course along to some family members. This course, as with most offerings by The Great Courses (TGC) is based on solid scholarship. However, its value to the student is less its scholarship than that it presents a huge bag of fun facts for parties. For example, the Old English word “man” actually referred to a person of either gender. There are probably hundreds of such fun facts. This student is forewarned to have a pad and pen handy while listening to these lectures in order collect all these fun facts. This course takes a topical approach to the subject, which is probably most appropriate. Topics include pronunciation, birth of new words, death of old words, slang, ingesting words from other languages, changing semantics and grammar, and taboo words. The course could have been half as long (or perhaps even one-third as long) just by cutting out a lot of fun facts without detracting from the one major point: our language changes over time. On the other hand, I’m glad she didn’t because fun facts are, well, fun. Dr. John McWhorter, to teaches a number of other linguistics courses by TGC, is one of the elite of the TGC stable of courses, but Dr. Curzan is not far behind him. She is well-spoken, upbeat, and engaging. She organizes her lectures well. It is fun to listen to her. The course guide is average by TGC standards. It is written in a hybrid paragraph/bullet format. It averages about 7 pages per lecture with few substantive graphics. The appendix consists of a bibliography. Ironically, this course on words does not have a glossary. I used the audio version of this course. I probably should have gotten the video version. There were times when it would have been helpful to see the words and definitions written out. The course was published in 2012.
Date published: 2024-05-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine course This course is an excellent guide to the variety and eccentricities English words and spelling. "Here's richness!"
Date published: 2024-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from minor error Dr. Johnson used the term "mere perusal" in his biography of Pope.
Date published: 2023-09-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent History of the English Language Excellent history of the English language, including how other languages created and continue to feed into English, and how as a living language it changes.
Date published: 2023-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Secret Life of Words This is an outstanding lecture series of English Words and Their Origins. Clearly presented with expertise, multiple insightful examples, references, along with keen wit and humor. Professor Anne Curzan deftly unfolded the secret life of words. I highly recommend.
Date published: 2023-04-08
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too political and biased. I bought this course because I am a long-standing buyer of Great Courses materials and my personal and academic interest in philology and the origins of words. I was hoping I could recommend the course as a supplement for my graduate students. Unfortunately, I will be unable to make that recommendation. It is obvious Professor Curzon enjoys language and has provided some interesting material for folks interested in deepening their appreciation of our sometimes mesmerizing English language. However, she should be transparent and upfront about the political and gender framework she uses in the course. As a mother of three sons and a daughter, I would be worried if this course was their only source for obtaining deeper understanding of English as the material applies a rather pejorative lens on males and men's use of language. I would go so far as to say some sections of the course are out and out a picture of misandry. When someone in a position of privilege and power puts themselves forward as an expert on a subject and purports to offer standards of usage, it is imperative to offer the reader/viewer context so they will be able to understand that a perspective is being offered not the "truth". I was especially taken aback when I read the professor's thoughts about dating and sexual language. She claims that girls have sex to form a relationship while boys use sex to “score”. Clearly the Professor does not know what young people are doing behind closed doors these days. Professor Curzon also does not seem to know that a lot of the pejorative words used to describe sex acts or body parts come historically from women who work in the sex trade. Also, contrary to the Professor’s contention that there is no male equivalent for "trophy wife" she misses a comparable term for a man being "a real catch", implying he is game in a hunt for a provider and a source of money and material support. Also, some of the words she implies that only men use to describe sex are used as frequently by women. As a teacher of young men and women I can readily attest to that fact. Unfortunately, this course reflects a political and gender bias that has become imbedded in my university and in universities generally in North America. I feel we risk losing our students, and our beautiful English language, to these biased political theories and a way to communicate that fosters social cohesion and respectful social discourse. On this basis I would not in good conscience recommend this course.
Date published: 2023-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course, great teacher! In the penultimate lecture Professor Curzan be bemoans the lack of a word for the pleasure we get from another's pleasure, what about a word for the obvious pleasure a great teacher gets from teaching? Funny, very informative, well worth watching again and again, thank you.
Date published: 2023-03-10
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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. But 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. 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.


Anne Curzan

I love this chance to share my passion for exploring the history of language and the dynamics of everyday talk. It allows us to see and hear the language around us in entirely new ways.


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.

By This Professor

The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins
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The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins


Winning Words, Banished Words

01: 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....

32 min
The Life of a Word, from Birth to Death

02: 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....

31 min
The Human Hands behind Dictionaries

03: 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....

30 min
Treasure Houses, Theft, and Traps

04: 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....

31 min
Yarn and Clues-New Word Meanings

05: 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....

31 min
Smog, Mob, Bling-New Words

06: 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....

31 min

07: "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....

30 min
Fighting over Zippers

08: 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....

30 min
Opening the Early English Word-Hoard

09: 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....

30 min
Safe and Sound-The French Invasion

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....

30 min
Magnifical Dexterity-Latin and Learning

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....

28 min
Chutzpah to Pajamas-World Borrowings

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....

30 min
The Pop/Soda/Coke Divide

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....

30 min
Maths, Wombats, and Les Bluejeans

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....

33 min
Foot and Pedestrian-Word Cousins

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."...

30 min
Desultory Somersaults-Latin Roots

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....

30 min
Analogous Prologues-Greek Roots

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....

32 min
The Tough Stuff of English Spelling

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....

30 min
The b in Debt-Meddling in Spelling

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....

31 min
Of Mice, Men, and Y'All

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"?...

31 min
I'm Good ... Or Am I Well?

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....

29 min
How Snuck Sneaked In

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....

30 min
Um, Well, Like, You Know

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."...

32 min
Wicked Cool-The Irreverence of Slang

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....

29 min
Boy Toys and Bad Eggs-Slangy Wordplay

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?...

32 min
Spinster, Bachelor, Guy, Dude

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."...

31 min
Firefighters and Freshpersons

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....

30 min
A Slam Dunk-The Language of Sports

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."...

30 min
Fooling Around-The Language of Love

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....

30 min
Gung Ho-The Language of War

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....

31 min
Filibustering-The Language of Politics

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."...

29 min
LOL-The Language of the Internet

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....

32 min
#$@%!-Forbidden Words

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....

31 min
Couldn't (or Could) Care Less

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....

30 min
Musquirt and Other Lexical Gaps

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....

32 min
Playing Fast and Loose with Words

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....

34 min