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The Rude Story of English: Oh, those cunning linguists

The Rude Story of English
Tom Howell
McClelland & Stewart

Linguistically speaking, England should be named Sexland. "Sexon" (or Saxon, as a later spelling would have it) was the broad name for the Germanic folk who inhabited much of the island's south by the end of the first millennium C.E.

That it instead bears the name of the Angles, a less sexy Germanic tribe that lived to the east, is one of the laments of The Rude Story of English, a boisterous new retelling of the emergence of the world's first lingua franca. Penned by English-born Canadian Tom Howell and with adorable Viking ships and Norman conquerors scrawled on its pages by illustrator Gabe Foreman, the book's uproariously silly take on history will hit home with fans of Blackadder and word nerds alike.

Its chief lament is the one it sets out to solve: the official story of the world's most widely spoken tongue isn't nearly as offensive as its facts dictate. Today's language of world diplomacy also has as one of its earliest surviving poems (c. 885) a set of 96 riddles that each has as its answer "a penis." (Sample: "I am a wonderful thing / To women a thrill / Handy in the neighbourhood…")

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The bawdy tale begins centuries before, in the year 449 C.E., when an Angle warrior named Hengest invaded Britain. Or so J.R.R. Tolkien thought. Mentioned in Beowulf, Hengest was theorized by the noted Hobbit inventor and philologist to have imported the Germanic tongue to Celtic soil. Howell calls this English's "asterisk reality," after the practice, used by philologists, of asterisking unverifiable accounts of phases of a word's evolution. Hengest becomes the book's "asterisk hero," popping up through the centuries to act as a comic, barbarian tour guide.

The book is in part an homage to the twisted book of English history par excellence, the dryly uproarious 1066 And All That by Walter Carruthers Sellar and Robert Julian Yeatman. Written in 1930, "the only Memorable History of England, because all the History that you can remember is in this book" (as it described itself) parodied the upper-crust textbooks of its time.

Howell has set himself a taller order: teach modern English speakers, most of whom aren't English any more, the spotted 1,564-year history of their tongue through wit and wacky tangents. Some of these skits are funny – Howell marshals diagrams, mock-equations and linguistic detective work to conclude that the first spoken word in English was "Argh!" – but others can be head-scratchingly fanciful, and obscure rather than brighten an already murky tale.

It's an inventive hybrid of fact and asterisk, however, with plenty of tidbits that make it a worthy read. After learning the penis poem, you won't see English class the same way again.

Sarah Barmak is a frequent contributor to Globe Books.

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