The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings John Murray, HK$117 The promise of this book is that, having read it, you will never again take words for granted. Henry Hitchings' aim is to show how English became English by borrowing from 350-plus languages. Naturally the study of English is also a study of history. In the chapter Saffron, Hitchings demonstrates how and why European encounters with the east produced words such as 'mattress', which derives from the Arabic for 'where something is thrown'. 'Mixture', he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as saying, 'is a secret of the English island' and shows how this concoction is audible and legible in our lexicon of roughly 700,000 words. That there are often different terms for the same thing is a strength of English, he adds, which affords precision and reveals attitudes, self-image and purpose. Given an Anglo-Saxon, a French and a Latin or Greek word with the same meaning, the first will typically be informal, the second comparatively formal and the third specialised or technical (for example rise, mount and ascend). The Secret Life of Words should be read slowly with a dictionary close by. The unexpected links, however, are the most entertaining part of the book.