A way with words: Lexical wizard Henry Hitchings on the crazy history of our language

'Margarine' comes from the Persian word for pearl, Edmund Spenser coined 'blatant' and many of our naval terms come from the Dutch.
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It's rather nerve-racking, interviewing an acknowledged master of the English language. I tell Henry Hitchings that I feel as though I'll have to take extra care with my choice of words. "Don't," he says briskly, as he ushers me into his book-lined 13th-floor Bermondsey flat. Fortunately, his attitude to language is anything but stuffy, snobbish or prescriptive.

His latest book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, has just won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for writers under 35 (past winners include VS Naipaul, Angela Carter, David Hare and AL Kennedy). A strong shortlist included The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won this year's Man Booker prize, Ross Raisin's acclaimed novel, God's Own Country, and Adam Fould's book-length narrative poem, The Broken Word. However, Henry Sutton, this year's chair of judges, says that it was the only book to win "universal praise" from the judging panel. "It reminds us of just how important etymology is to understanding the history of a fractured world," he comments.

Hitchings' focus is not just on the rarefied and literary, however. "I'm not saying I hang around on street corners talking to young people," he announces, "but I have noticed a lot of Romany words around these days. You hear a lot of young people saying they're going round to somebody's drum. Things like that I find quite intriguing. I don't know what the exact significance is, but I like the idea that your flat is a drum and that you roll around in it like a pea."

London spreads out under the windows of Hitchings' drum; from St Paul's to the London Eye and Battersea power station. He points out a long brick wall, near the foot of his block, which is supposedly the last visible remnant of the Marshalsea prison. Given that Mr Dorrit's travails continue on BBC1, it seems appropriate to ask what Hitchings thinks of Dickens' use of language.

"I think he's a wonderful writer at the level of the sentence," he enthuses, confessing that he finds the longer novels difficult to get through. "But at the micro level he is incredibly rewarding."

It's the micro level that concerns Hitchings the most. Of contemporary authors, he singles out Edward St Aubyn and Alan Hollinghurst. "They're probably the two English novelists where I just feel that every single page of their books has an insight which is not only really trenchant, but which is expressed much better than one could ever express it oneself."

In non-fiction he admires Robert Macfarlane, whose book The Wild Places was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize last year (when I was the chair of judges). "He's a very close friend of mine," confesses Hitchings, "but I particularly like the way he writes about things that are really quite banal, like stones, or the sky. I remember him once referring in conversation to a 'gin and tonic sky'. I'm not sure if I could spell out to you why that's so good, but I love it."

So where did this fascination with words come from? Hitchings can remember his mother, a gifted linguist, teaching him the Greek alphabet in the bath when he was "probably about four". His father was a barrister, "someone who's quite particular about language being used accurately and with clarity. My parents didn't put me under pressure academically, but they were very keen to stimulate me. I'm an only child, and from quite an early age they treated me as an adult and had adult conversations with me."

He picked up an interest in language "by osmosis". "Etymology was something that came from that; that idea that a large chunk of the English language comes from other places. Often in English we have several words for the same thing that come from different sources, each of which has a different set of associations. So you've got dead, which is a word of Germanic origin; you've got deceased, which is a word of Norman French origin, and you've got defunct, from Latin. You would use them in very different circumstances." You can see exactly the same pattern in shit, ordure and excrement.

A stint reading English at Oxford led to a PhD on that ultimate words man, Samuel Johnson, at University College London. This fed directly into his first book, Dr Johnson's Dictionary, written for the dictionary's 250th anniversary in 2005.

The Secret Life of Words is filled with fascinating nuggets. Everyone knows about Anglo-Saxon being overwritten with Norman French after the Conquest, but who knew about the superior Dutch seamanship that, in the 16th century, brought us skipper, boom, deck, sloop, reef and hull, not to mention landlubber and keelhaul? We all know about the Raj giving us pyjama and bungalow (which simply means "belonging to Bengal"), but what about shampoo, "the imperative (champo) of the Hindi champna, a verb that conveys the idea of kneading and pressing the body to releave fatigue and stimulate the circulation" . So that modish head massage your salon insists on inflicting isn't so newfangled after all.

"The life of words is very interesting," he says. "I thought, almost everyone is interested in words, and yet we take them for granted. What I mean by 'secret'," he elaborates, "is that beneath the public use of words, there are all these submerged stories to do with where things come from, which are often very unexpected, and which may even cause one to rethink how one uses certain words."

However, he cautions: "I don't think one should use words in the strict etymological sense, otherwise candidates would have to be dressed in white! You don't go around adhering to the root meaning like that, but I think a sensitivity to where words come from makes one more selective about which words one uses."

Despair at the erosion of the English language is not a new phenomenon, as he demonstrates time and again in the book. "Purism is a bit of a nonsense because so much of the language one uses was borrowed once, and it always seems to me that when people argue about usage, they're really arguing about something bigger: standards, morals. People talk about the 'decline of the English language' – and it's not in decline. People have been exercised about these issues for as long as we have written records. You only have to look at the antipathy there was in Shakespeare's era to words coming in from the Spanish, Italian, French and Latin. The hostility to French words is almost a given in the English language!"

Borrowings are not necessarily straightforward like-for-like switches either. He points out that, though we get bra from the French brassière, "in fact the French use soutien-gorge, and a brassière is a life-jacket."

Shakespeare was another Bermondsey/ Borough resident. He gets a rather brief mention in The Secret Life of Words, and I ask why. Surely he's the great word-mint of the English language? "No. No," Hitchings demurs. "It's very often exaggerated. There's no doubt that a lot of Shakespearean phrases have entered the common currency of speech, as have phrases from the King James Bible, and Shakespeare does coin words, but I think he was probably more of a populariser of things that were already there. It's not a particularly useful way to think about Shakespeare, or about English, to say he is the architect of modern English."

There's a distinction to be drawn, he points out, between your active vocabulary (the words you actually use) and your passive vocabulary (the words you recognise).

"'Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 50,000 words' seems to me to be a fatuous statement, and it doesn't translate into 'Shakespeare is responsible for 50,000 words', or anything like that. The thing about being a playwright is, you're displaying more of your vocabulary in order to be novel. The other thing is, our impression of the past has, until comparatively recently, been based on written records, so you might say there's been an excessive emphasis on Shakespeare and other dramatists and poets as a source for what Elizabethan and Jacobean English was like. There must have been all kinds of things going on orally, but we have no sense of that."

Though his first book was a biography of Dr Johnson's dictionary, he acknowledges we are in a new age as far as lexicography is concerned. "Recently I have perused Jonathon Green's Dictionary of Slang and the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang. Impressive books in their way – the Green book is amazing – but by the time it's set down in hard covers, slang is already out of date. When you hear something and don't know what it means, you don't look it up in a book, you look it up on the internet: Urban Dictionary, places like that." He foresees a two-tiered system, with a place for printed works and vetting by committee, but ultimately, he says: "The internet is the future of lexicography."

His next book, due in 2011, is a history of the controversies of English usage. "A lot of the time, people say 'this word is a bastard word', or 'I'm really upset about split infinitives', but these arguments are not new." (I suspect that, as he's also the author of an entertaining bluffer's guide called How to Really Talk About Books You Haven't Read, Hitchings takes a relaxed view on split infinitives himself.)

It's amazing where a conversation about words can lead you. In an hour we've covered the literal Chinese translation of "monosodium glutamate"; the fact that you order a schooner of beer in Sydney but a pot when in Melbourne; the Japanese practice bukkake; and Google's failed attempt to stop people using its name as a verb. ("They wanted people to say 'conduct a Google search'; but 'googling yourself' would have to be 'conducting a Google search for your own name'. And it really does feel like a verb.")

Hitchings is still fizzing with ideas and enthusiasms when the interview ends. I leave him brooding over the Italian for football. "The fact that they call football calcio is extraordinary to me. The root is the same as calcium. It's thoroughly curious..."

The Secret Life of Words, By Henry Hitchings (John Murray £16.99)

'...We may well enjoy knowing that botulism comes from a Latin word for sausage, that muscle is related to mouse (a bunched muscle being a bit like a quivering mouse), or that mortgage literally means death grip; in each case the link is unexpected and droll. An album is, in the strict etymological sense, something white, like a blank writing tablet, and to prevaricate means to plough crookedly.'

The John Llewellyn Rhys prize is administered by Booktrust. For more information, go to www.booktrust.org