The story of English is often told as a tale of borrowed words. Popular accounts celebrate the penchant of English for borrowing and tie that to its success as a world language. Anglo-Saxon English borrowed from Celtic, Latin, and Scandinavian. After the Norman Conquest, Middle English swelled with French borrowings. During the Elizabethan age, neology was unleashed by popular writers like Shakespeare and by inkhorn scholars who coined neoclassicisms. Colonization, immigration, global business, and technology continued to expand the borrowed vocabulary.
Drawing on the OED, Geoffrey Hughes’s A History of English Words analyzes the English lexicon as a historical and cultural repository, showing how strata of vocabulary correlate with both social class and communicative function. Hughes explores the relationships among the various levels, discussing Renaissance experimental use of language, the bawdiness of the Restoration, and the restraint of the Victorian era. He draws on his earlier expertise as author of Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanity in English, which traced that particular genre from the ritual insults and oaths of Beowulf to imprecations of the present day.
Specific aspects or layers of the English vocabulary sometimes receive book-length expositions. Donald Ayers’s English Words from Latin and Greek Elements is a straightforward vocabulary book identifying classical bases and affixes and their combining forms. Thus, for example, the base sed meaning “to sit or settle” (and its alternate forms sid and sess) yields words like sediment, sedative, preside, and session. John Geipel’s The Viking Legacy discusses the Norse invasions of Britain and their effect on the vocabulary, and includes appendixes of Scandinavian surnames and loanwords (including akimbo, balderdash, and freckle). D. Gary Miller’s External Influences on English: From Its Beginnings to the Renaissance goes deep into the phonological properties of borrowings from the Celts, Vikings, and French, and shows how borrowed material has affected the morphology and syntax of English.
The collection Spanish Loanwords in the English language, edited by Félix Rodríguez González, includes essays on both early and recent Spanish loanwords, Spanish loanwords in contemporary slang, and Spanish place-names, with an excellent bibliographic essay on Spanish borrowings. J. Alan Pfeffer and Garland Cannon’s German Loanwords in English addresses the misconception that German contributed little to English. And Charles Cutler’s O Brave New Words!: Native American Loanwords in Current English offers a historian’s approach to Native American loanwords from terms like powwow and moose to calques like iron horse and whispering spirit (for telephone/telegraph).