The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg UCL

My favourite word of the moment is ‘Mountweazel’. My curious fingertips stumbled across this short article in the New Yorker from 2005 which explains Mountweazels more succinctly than I ever could. Did you know that dictionaries often add in fictitious words as a copyright trap? The article states that the 2005 edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary contains a made-up word beginning with ‘E’ and a shortlist of six possible Mountweazels surfaced and the list was sent to various lexicography experts and they (correctly) agreed that the word ‘esquivalience’ was the imposter (I admit, of the list, that’s not the one I would have chosen!). I summoned my Dictionary programme that lies in the dock area of my Mac and typed in ‘esquivalience’ and there lies a definition consistent with the false entry from the NOAD:


Can you believe it?! I think I leapt about 12 inches into the air. I use that dictionary more than I’d like to admit, out of spectacular laziness (is that a real word?? My computer dictionary says so, but now we are at an impasse). These are very anxious waters indeed. It’s all absolutely fascinating! New career goal: to slip a Mountweazel into the dictionary. Fictionary dictionary.

I saw Lord Melvyn Bragg collect his honorary Doctorate of Literature from University College London last week (as my sister collected her doctorate) and I caught up with him afterwards at the ceremony and we discussed his love of literature and life in London today.

The Adventure of English Review

I’ve been a fan of Melvyn Bragg since I discovered his book ‘The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language’ just before I started university (anyone who is interested in etymology or going to study English Literature or English Language should read this book!).

It’s a very readable reference book that tracks the history of the English language from its Germanic roots across space and time to India, Singapore and South America, not forgetting how it ‘reaches back to claw’ in Latin and Greek origins. Of course Shakespeare’s impressive contribution to English rightly deserves a chapter, as well as the evolution of the spoken word and the interesting thrill of slang in Charles Dickens’ England.

Bragg contextualises the journey of the English Language by providing historical information. The Great Exhibition in 1851 for instance, was a showcase not only of the latest offerings in jewellery and technology, but it was also an opportunity for the genesis of new words, such as ‘lithograph’ and ‘lorry’. We can even read an extract from Queen Victoria’s journal, detailing her visit to the Great Exhibition: ‘Went to the machinery part, where we remained two hours, and which is excessively interesting’.

No Mountweazels there.

If you’re a word nerd like me, you’ll love this book. Who knows: you might need something to talk about when you meet Lord Bragg unexpectedly!

Melvyn Bragg UCL


‘The Adventure of English’ by Melvyn Bragg was published in 2003 by Sceptre.

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