The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell
Anyone who’s ever learned English can tell you that it’s a frustrating language. Tom Howell can explain how it came to be that way, and he does so in an amusing and attention-grabbing way. The Rude Story of English is exactly what it sounds like: a tongue-in-cheek history of the English language and its ruder parts.
Howell claims that a good story about English needs a good hero, and he quickly finds one, a fictional Germanic tribesman named Hengest. After being exiled from continental Europe, Hengest and his sister-daughter Horsehair spearhead the “invasion” of the British Isles in 449 A.D./C.E., an actual historical event seen by many linguists to be the beginning of the age of English. Upon reaching the isles, Hengest and friends settle down and fight some wars; however, Hengest soon suffers a witch’s curse that causes him to live forever. The rest of the book follows him and Horsehair (soon similarly cursed) as they travel around England and the world, frequently and fortuitously ending up in situations where they influence the nature of the English language. Hengest alone encounters pirates, faces down thieves, and visits colonists in the Americas, and he becomes more intertwined in the history of the language at every turn.
While the historical subject matter is complex, it’s clear that Howell has done his best to make it as painless as possible. The plot is more streamlined and less intense than other explorations of English. He remains faithful to the record, but he transforms history into a story that casual readers will find more accessible.
The Rude Story of English slightly embellishes the historical record, yet it does so in a way meant to improve its accessibility. Comedy abounds as Howell brilliantly crafts hypothetical conversations between his protagonists and historical characters. Brash and loud, Hengest is forced to rub shoulders with great minds such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower. Meanwhile, the more capable and clever Horsehair becomes a major player in historical situations, often outsmarting everyone around her.
Although Horsehair is frequently the cleverest person in the room, Howell demonstrates that he’s one of the cleverest people currently writing history. This book is full of humor, ranging from the basest to the most elaborate jokes. It seems Howell never forgets a detail from earlier in his story, and he knows exactly when to build upon his older jokes to deepen the humor. Without a doubt, The Rude Story of English is easy to read because it refuses to be completely serious.
Because the book isn’t the most academic depiction of linguistic history, it does gloss over a few important cultural events, which is really the story’s sole deficiency. The plot focuses on Hengest, and the book’s examination of history is narrower as a consequence. While Howell thoroughly researched his topic, it would have been nice to see a more omnipresent exploration of the language’s past. This weakness, however, is both small and excusable since Howell aims to relate both a comical narrative and a linguistic history instead of an exhaustive account of the past.
Comedy is an integral part of this book, yet readers should understand that its title isn’t an exaggeration. The Rude Story of English is unapologetically rude, and there are many instances of strong language and mature humor. For many people, a trigger warning isn’t necessary, but it deserves mentioning that this book is not particularly suitable for children or those easily offended.
For those comfortable with a book of this type, The Rude Story of English certainly will be educational and engaging. Readers are guaranteed a chuckle every few pages, but they’re also guaranteed to learn something on every page. That is perhaps Howell’s greatest accomplishment: he tries to revive the story of our language for a general audience, and he is marvelously successful.
The Rude Story of English
By Tom Howell
Illustrated by Gabe Foreman
320 pp. McClelland and Stewart, November 2013. $22.95