Plain speaking

<strong>By Hook or By Crook: a journey in search of English</strong>

David Crystal <em>Harper Pre

Have you ever wondered what the phrase “to shog” means? Or whether it really was Tolkien who came up with the word “hobbit”? If so, then David Crystal’s excellent, discursive new book is for you. One of England’s greatest living language commentators, Crystal builds his book around a series of journeys to such disparate locations as Hay-on-Wye, San Francisco and Bombay.

In each place he visits, Crystal discusses issues of language and history, sometimes with local relevance, other times at gleefully unexpected tangents. Hence the shogging, an Elizabethan word loosely meaning “go away”.

There are many more of these unexpected darts of humour, as well as typically thoughtful examinations of the way in which language is being changed, not by local customs, but by the growth of internet and text-speak.

Crystal’s accessible and lively style belies his academic rigour.

He makes a compelling case for there being no such thing as a fixed English language, merely a series of codes and dialogues that are currently accepted practice. This is tempered by an unsentimental nostalgia for past ways of speech, and the understated conclusion that national feeling lies in the history and development of such codes.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning