Words on the Move: Why English Won’t—and Can’t—Sit Still (Like, Literally)

Words on the Move by John McWhorter

A best-selling linguist takes us on a lively tour of how the English language is evolving before our eyes—and why we should embrace this transformation and not fight it.

Language is always changing—but we tend not to like it. We understand that new words must be created for new things, but the way English is spoken today rubs many of us the wrong way. Whether it’s the use of literally to mean “figuratively” rather than “by the letter” or the way young people use LOL and like, or business jargon like what’s the ask?—it often seems as if the language is deteriorating before our eyes.

But the truth is different and a lot less scary, as John McWhorter shows in this delightful and eye-opening exploration of how English has always been in motion and continues to evolve today. Drawing examples from everyday life and employing a generous helping of humor, he shows that these shifts are a natural process common to all languages and that we should embrace and appreciate these changes, not condemn them.

Words on the Move opens our eyes to the surprising backstories to the words and expressions we use every day. Did you know that silly once meant “blessed”? Or that ought was the original past tense of owe? Or that the suffix -ly in adverbs is actually a remnant of the word like? And have you ever wondered why some people from New Orleans sound as if they come from Brooklyn?

McWhorter encourages us to marvel at the dynamism and resilience of the English language, and his book offers a lively journey through which we discover that words are ever on the move, and our lives are all the richer for it.

Author: John McWhorter

Amazon | Goodreads

Rating: 4.5/5

Like is a word, and so we’d expect it to develop new meanings: the only question, as always, is which one? So is it that young people are strangely overusing the like from the dictionary, or might it be that like has birthed a child with a different function altogether? When one alternative involves saddling entire generations of people, of an awesome array of circumstances across a vast nation, with a mysteriously potent inferiority complex, the other possibility beckons as a worthy engagement.”

Oh. my goodness. If you love words and language, you have to read this book (literally). Actually, I recommend that you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did. McWhorter is delightful and witty and very funny. Plus, a lot of his points depend on the pronunciation of words and inflection, so I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way.

I have always been passively fascinated by the way we use language, both written and oral. I think emojis are such a cool modicum of communication that goes so much farther than simple pictures. The way you can tell someone is angry if they end a text message with a period? So fascinating to me. And this book was about those things exactly, and more. All of it is interspersed with tangible examples from multiple languages and periods of history.

“In terms of how words actually exist in time and space, to think of a word’s ‘genuine’ meaning as the one you find upon looking it up is like designating a middle-aged person’s high school graduation snapshot as ‘what they really look like.’ There’s a charming whimsy in it, but still. A person receiving such a compliment often says, ‘Oh, please!’—and words, if they could talk, surely would as well.”

I learned so many interesting things. For example, did you know that the word overwhelm is as redundant as irregardless? It’s true. (Although as I type this, Grammarly’s spellcheck disagrees, as do you probably.) Apparently, whelm used to be a word on its own that actually means what we mean today by overwhelm. But people really wanted to emphasize it, so they added over, and it stuck. That’s exactly what’s happening with irregardless. And literally. Also, did you ever notice how somehow everyone knows nowadays that one exclamation point is simply the polite way to react (“See you there!”), but to express true enthusiasm, the norm is three exclamation points?

Okay, I don’t want to give all these things away, but they are so cool. I’m clearly still very excited about it all. Do yourself a favor and listen to this audiobook!

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