The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins

Rated 4 out of 5 by from A trove of info.!! I enjoyed this course immensely and found Professor Curzan's explanations and voice pleasant to listen to. The only reason I gave this course 4 instead of 5 stars is because I so eagerly looked forward to her explanation of HOW profanities even come to be taboo, and she did not cover that! I want to know HOW these dirty, forbidden words even become "a thing." As a language teacher and avid reader and writer, I have my hunches, but I was looking forward to Professor Curzan's historical analysis... sadly, there was nothing on how those words came to be.
Date published: 2020-09-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from delightful with barely a break in the flow, thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, informative & educational. I wish English in school was taught as well & as interestingly. Prof Curzan presents her area of specialty clearly, with enthusiasm & minimal repetition. .
Date published: 2020-07-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great course, with one exception I very much enjoyed this course, and recommend it. The instructor was very knowledgeable and entertaining. However, I must agree with at least one other reviewer that I wish she had left her political opinions out of it. As she very capably describes, English has borrowed from almost every other language on the planet. Yet recent borrowing from Black English somehow diminish or disrespect (I have forgotten the exact word she used) Black culture? And the feminist chip on her shoulder is so big that I'm surprised she is not forced to hunch over. These opinions do not manifest in every lecture, but in a couple I found myself tempted to fast forward or skip to the next one. I want to leave this on a positive note, so I will add that I have watched several lectures over again with my son.
Date published: 2020-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course. The professor does a fine job. Excellent presentation technique keeps the material interesting.
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent content, generally well presented This course assumes a fair amount of familiarity with English as a subject, and is thus more analogous to music theory than to music appreciation. That said, there was nothing I could not understand, although some parts (particularly in the first half) were less stimulating content-wise than others. I liked the last dozen lectures best: the ones on words for love, sports, politics, and war were particularly good, as were those on “forbidden words” and idioms. Professor Curzan is a true authority on the subject, and the content of the course is top-notch. However, her delivery style took me a bit of getting used to. Although she occasionally breaks into fully fluent, smoothly moving, uninterrupted delivery, much of the time she speaks in 2- to 5-word phrases interspersed with short breaths, such that she often breathes 2-4 times in a single sentence. Although this is not a huge deal, I was unable to stop noticing it even after 20+ lectures. That said, she is articulate and the message is both economical and pertinent. I learned quite a bit in the course, especially the notion that “correct” English as I have always judged and tried to practice it is only one of multiple “registers” of valid contemporary English, in a language that is continually evolving, with little that’s really right or wrong.
Date published: 2019-08-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating to Lovers of the English Language Loved learning about the continuing evolution of English and its many variations!
Date published: 2019-06-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth it! Professor Curzan is very entertaining, the subject matter is mostly current, and the listening is very enjoyable. Excellent value.
Date published: 2019-04-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fascinating look at our language I enjoyed hearing about the past, present and future of the English language. It was interesting to learn how the language had changed over time, which helps explain English's interesting spelling challenges. Those letters were not always silent. It also was good to here the professors view that the internet and cell phones are causing us to write more, not less.
Date published: 2019-04-21
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The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins
Course Trailer
Winning Words, Banished Words
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....

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

31 min
The Human Hands behind Dictionaries
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....

30 min
Treasure Houses, Theft, and Traps
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....

31 min
Yarn and Clues-New Word Meanings
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....

31 min
Smog, Mob, Bling-New Words
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....

31 min
"Often" versus "Offen"-Pronunciation
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....

30 min
Fighting over Zippers
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....

30 min
Opening the Early English Word-Hoard
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....

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
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


University of Michigan

About Anne Curzan

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

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