Reviews /


Authored by Patrick Skipworth
Illustrated by Nicholas Stevenson
Published by What on Earth Books

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Literally :Amazing Words and Where They Come From

This latest offering from What on Earth Books is a history of the English language in 12 words. ‘Not possible!’, I hear you exclaim. And of course, you are right. But Patrick Skipworth has done a superb job in selecting words with forensic attention to detail, which means that collectively this group of words punch above their weight covering many interesting roots and routes into English.

Take, for instance, the word companion. Have you ever stopped to consider where that word comes from? Originally from the Latin meaning ‘with bread’. If you speak a little French or Italian, you will begin to see the connection with the word pain or pane – bread. In English, the word companion has come to mean a friend. (and you might recognise cognates in other European languages like Italian ‘compagno’ or Spanish  ‘companero’).  So now we know that in the past our ‘companions’ were people we sat down to eat with – literally to break bread. Bread is a universal food made from wheat, corn, rye and rice. In Africa it can be made in large earthenware pots or cooked in oil and in China, bread is steamed. Nicholas Stevenson’s joyful illustration captures the original and the current meanings and provides plenty of opportunities for discussion about sharing and bonding with food.

One of the positive features of the book is the large number of source languages that are included. The onomatopoeic ‘kookaburra’ is from the Aboriginal Australian language. Caribou is from Mi’kmaq, an indigenous language of Eastern Canada. Other words come from Arabic, Sanskrit, French, Japanese, Swahili, and Old English is represented by the inclusion of ‘worm’.

I was pleased to see that a pronunciation guide is included (not as common as it should be in children’s nonfiction).

A map showing language families is a bit more complicated than the main text. Older children can read it for themselves. Parents and teachers of younger children can draw on this knowledge when sharing the book. It’s good to see the provisionality of knowledge being acknowledge in the text ‘Our knowledge of the world’s languages is still developing, and scholars argue about how to group them in families.‘ and ‘The map on this page shows our current understanding of where some of the largest language families are spoken.’ These indicators gently set learners up to begin to understand research processes and their role in the acquisition and development of knowledge. This is reinforced in the excellent Author’s Note.

Literally, just 12 words but there is easily 12 months of exciting language study that could be generated by using this book in the classroom. I loved it.

You can listen to an In the Reading Corner podcast interview with Patrick here.