From “Admiral” to “Zionism,” Isaac Asimov explores the A to Z of 250 words which have their roots in history. Included are words that are indispensible to our modern vocabulary, which as “appeasement,” “cold war,” “leftist,” and “Molotov cocktail.” The impact of these words becomes more powerful with an understanding of their origin.
There are also words which are so common to us (alphabet, mystery, dunce and sandwich, to name only a few) that we hardly stop to think that they might indeed have had quite surprising historical origins. “Attic,” for instance, started as a byword for all that was intellectual and worthwhile, referring to the height of culture and sophistication that was Athens in the 5th century B.C. In the 18th century with the English Greek revival, peaked roofs were placed over main structures, and pillars were added à la Greek temples. This was called Attic architecture. The room beneath the peaked roof then became the “attic,” a by-product of the new architecture. Professor Asimov adds, “Nowadays, the attic is usually a jumbled storeroom and junkpile that would horrify any truly Attic soul.”
Isaac Asimov is the author of five other books on etymology, ranging in subject matter from WORDS OF SCIENCE to WORDS FROM THE MYTHS. As with WORDS FROM HISTORY, each book provides a unique way to increase one’s vocabulary—and absorb a great deal of information besides.
This sixth “word” book once more reverts to the form of Words of Science. (The count as of this point is three-and-three: three word books—Words of Science, Words on the Map, and Words from History—which are one-page descriptive essays, and three—Words from the Myths, Words in Genesis, and Words from the Exodus—which are narratives wrapped around etymological guts.)
Beyond that, there’s really little to say about this book that hasn’t been said about its older siblings. It’s very good, covers a lot of ground, and is packed with useful information on where words come from and snippets of history thrown in for good luck. It’s a terrific book. Read it.