The Story of English in 100 Words

I love book titles that jump out at me. It’s not easy to think up an evocative phrase or name that’ll stand out in the mass of dusty shelves of non-fiction, hardly grazed by regular readers who’d rather wallow by a willow on the wonderful world of fiction.

That’s why The Story of English in 100 Words caught my eye. Even more thought provoking was the size of the book, for I’d thought even Frankenstein-like font wouldn’t require 200 pages for a 100-word book.

Good work, David Crystal. You had my attention. 

I flipped open the book to realise that the author had used misleading phrasing as a tactic to grip his reader—a curious use of the language he was just about to embark decoding. It wasn’t the story of English in 100 words, but rather the stories of 100 English words. 

And then it made sense. In a way, in a crude and uncanny way of speaking of words and usage, the author was right: by telling the stories of 100 exemplary words, he’d hoped to explore the evolution of English itself. So in a way, that title wasn’t such a bad choice.

Curious.

I’d have preferred a more direct one, though.

That said, the book is still an engaging read. As I browsed through the words and the narrative associated with each, I saw that the author had strayed away from strict research and technicalities to take a more relatable approach.

Here and there, strewn like breadcrumbs on lasagne, were the author’s observations about a certain word. For a student referencing it hoping to find matter for an assignment, the interjecting musings may be a hindrance, but for a language enthusiast who picked up the book because of its captivating title, they were fodder for thought.

For instance, 

We have to be especially careful when it comes to the adjective’ arsy’.

In Britain, the word means ‘bad-tempered’ or ‘arrogant’, as in “We get the occasional arsy customer in here.”

In Australia, the word has developed a positive meaning, ‘lucky’: “That was an arsy goal.”

It’s wise to pay special attention to who’s speaking before deciding what to make of “You’re an arsy bastard!”

Throughout the book are little gems like this that smile at you from behind the veil of informing. Of course, the author does record origins of the word where applicable, and the background story of how it fell into regular speak.

Words like doublespeak, Twitterverse, arsy, doobry, blurb, and a multitude of exciting others make you go, “huh,” and look away from the book to stare at the trees passing you as you sit on a long bus commute, thinking, mulling over what you just read. There’re stories about words like “muggle” and how J.K. Rowling toppled its meaning from a drugger—as was the accepted meaning in the 20th century—to mean a person without magical (or special) powers.

This is a lighthearted book. Though its an intense concept—exploring the history of certain quirky words and how life has folded them into our everyday batter and banter—the author does a great job of keeping it readable and level headed, even for the casual reader in the street. 

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The other side

I was never a great fan of Jane Eyre. 

Like most people, I also read it in middle school, when I hadn’t quite developed the patience to endure or contemplate why Jane, who was so praised for being plain and relatable, was such a big deal. 

And I still don’t understand why her love for Rochester was such praiseworthy. After all, she did abandon him when she heard he’d had an unhappy marriage, only to run back to him when he almost died in the fire.

I grew up watching countless movies where the lead female character’s sole responsibility was to prance across the screen, showing off, triggering the men’s emotions, and then falling in love with them because they’re willing to die for love. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Jane Eyre, the book, was just another case of female objectification.

However, Jane Eyre, the character was something else. There were many moments in the story where I supported her decisions. I agreed when she raged at being kept in the dark about Bertha. And I believed she would’ve loved Rochester even she had known. Throughout the book, I was with Jane, but by the end of it, I wasn’t happy for her. Instead, I felt as if the story merited no merit. 

Of course, Bronte’s writing was so intense and beautiful in many aspects and I, by no means, belittle the book she produced. Regardless, for some reason, Jane Eyre remained incomprehensible to me because it lacked something. 

Then I read Wide Sargasso Sea. Written by Jene Rhys, this is a prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  

The story unravels the life of Bertha, Rochester’s wife. Written in her perspective initially, later shifting to Rochester’s, the book walks the reader through Antoinette’s (Bertha’s first name) disturbing childhood, her mother’s fate, her family’s wealth and the implications of being a Creole heiress. 

This background into Bertha’s life, in many ways, threw light into real Jane Eyre, the book. 

The only references and perspectives we get from Bronte about Bertha, come from a Rochester who’s already fallen out of love with her. When he speaks of her and narrates his life with her, he’s so welded in self-pity and sadness. And as readers of Jane Eyre, we naturally cultivate a disliking to this unwanted character that was forcefully placed in our hero’s life. Our opinions are biased to begin with, and that leads us to justify Bertha’s death as a favourable outcome for the protagonist. 

That’s the idea Jene Rhys challenges.

The more we learn about Bertha as a person (as opposed to Bertha as the madwoman), the more we realise the realities of life. Her entire existence was a series of events for which no one could be blamed for. There were no evil witches or antagonists attempting to disrupt her life. As a child, she lived by the rules, as a woman, she married as she was told, and as a wife, she tried her best to love her husband and seek his affection in return. She was the real plain Bertha. And yet, we see her life toppling into misfortune, dragging along an innocent Rochester. 

In fact, reading Jene Rhys’s story increased my affection for Rochester. The second half of the book is entirely in his perspective and we see, despite his helplessness, a genuine desire to help the woman whose life was tangled with his. We get a fuller picture of Rochester as a character. 

For me, that was the best part of Wide Sargasso Sea. Aside from addressing plenty of social and economic matters in the Caribbean and women’s health issues, this story completes the picture that Bronte paints in Jane Eyre. 

Perhaps now, when I re-read Jane Eyre, I’ll appreciate it more than I did the first time.

Incredible how powerful perspective is.

So long

shedding skin

slithering,

searching summer 

snake


A new experiment today. Think it works?

What rules?

It was in an English literature class, while studying Shakespeare, that I first heard of poetic licenses.

Poets breaking rules.

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Writing as their heart desired. Morphing labels, forging words, scouring attention.

It fascinated me. I grew up learning to obey authority, as most of us did. And I followed devotedly, setting additional rules for myself.

I hated putting a foot out of line. Always submitted homework on time.

Though I loved restrictions, I also found immense joy in testing those boundaries. That’s why haiku as a poetic form attracted me. It threw a challenge: tell a story with limited words. Couldn’t resist.

I’ve been writing haiku for a while. And I’ve always vehemently stuck to the traditional pattern. A haiku is a Japanese form of poetry containing three lines in the 5-7-5 syllable pattern. That’s how I’ve always written it; that’s the only way I knew of writing haiku.

Until I heard of Haibun—a piece that combines haiku and prose, often in travel writing and autobiographies.

Haiga—a haiku accompanied by a work of art like a painting or photograph.

And haikai—linked verses relating to vulgar, witty, and earthy topics written by multiple poets.

And then I heard of “modern English haiku”.

Apparently, contemporary haiku in English uses a 3-5-3 syllable pattern (with exceptions, of course).

I also learnt that the longer version is more suitable for Japanese haiku because of the language’s natural rhythm.

Hmm.

So after being inspired by a bunch of modern haikus, I decided to give it a shot myself. Oh, well—it’s not breaking the rules if there’re no rules to begin with.

rebellion 
poetic license
now convention

Thoughts, friends?

Woman at work

It was a lonely little corner
she’d taken it up as her own
crouching low, perched on edge
on a tall-backed cushion chair
as if she’d forgotten for good
how good it was sitting back
intensely black her eyes
as a bird atop a peeling birch
darting from stitch to stitch
as though following a fish
unperturbed by them rustling
winter winds wailing without
cozy and carefree she snuggled
swiftly shifting her grip instead
keeping up steady progress
lips parting in occasional smile
chuckling at jokes only she saw
much like the readers around
cherishing the magic that unfurled
the old woman knitted in the library