In a world where texting often replaces talking, emailing overtakes writing, and educating online instead of in-person is becoming the norm, words (especially written ones) are perhaps even more important than ever whilst also being largely undervalued as the English language is corrupted. (If I have to hear or read one more person say or write “I thought to myself”!)

Henry Hitchings, an author who was born the year I was, appears to agree, and has written The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English to encourage us to stop and think about the words we use. But he’s no grammar-disciplinarian–instead his book traces the history of English vocabulary and words’ witness to the past and social change to spin enchanting real-life stories of the people, places and things that shaped the words that fall from pen and tongue. (He also reminds us that English has co-opted words from more than 350 other languages where does shampoo come from?).

The first chapter is Ensemble, and here’s a peek at the first lines:


Together, at the same time; the united performance of all voices

From the French, which derives from the late Latin insimul, comprising in, ‘in’, and simul, ‘at the same time’

‘All these trifling things…collectively form that pleasing je ne sais quoi, that ensemble‘ – Lord Chesterfield, 1748

On a smoky October morning in 1697, a Puritan magistrate called Samuel Sewall went to visit the Lieutenant Governor at Dorchester, which is now a suburb of Boston on the American east coast. Born in England, in a rural part of Hampshire, Sewall had arrived in American as an adolescent. He had studie at Harvard, had managed the Boston printing press, and in 1692 had been one of the nine judges appointed to hear the Salem witch trials. Not long before his trip to Dorchester he had publicly expressed shame over his role in the last of these, but that October morning this bulky, big-framed figure had more appetizing business on his mind.”

-Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English