The History of Language Is More Than Word of Mouth; Words Have Evolved over Thousands of Years into Many Languages. Now a Liverpool Linguist Has Written a Book about Where They Come From

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Byline: David Charters

WE USE them so readily, always assuming that they will be there for us, but each one has a history of its own and a capacity to adapt to new circumstances and different people.

Deep in evolution it was the capacity to speak which separated us from the other creatures.

Sounds developed into words and those words matured into language and then literature. The study of their origins is called etymology, not to be confused with entomology which deals with insects - or bugs as they might be called in common parlance.

That, in turn, should not be confused with the device for eavesdropping on secret conversations and eaves are ...

In a jiffy, the English language has us caught in its spell. This is a subject of endless fascination.

Of course, if you are feeling rather listless this morning and the doctor has just prescribed a keen purgative to clear your system, you may not draw much comfort from the knowledge that the word 'constipation' is derived from the ancient Greek naval formation, 'neon stiphos', which became a term for anything pressed or compacted together. Through twists and turns, bringing in various tongues, the words came to have their present meaning.

Enmeshed in this web and loving every minute of it is a former 11-plus failure from Liverpool, who is now recognised as an etymological expert with a new book to prove it. In Word Routes, Alexander Tulloch, a Fellow of the Institute of Linguistics, tells the stories of more than 500 words, tracing them across the centuries and countries.

Close to home we have 'wack' or 'wacker', once a common form of address on Merseyside, also used to describe a native of the region. In the second use, it has been almost totally replaced by Scouser. But you may sometimes still hear old-timers say, 'Arright wack'.

Tulloch, 61, believes wack is a variation on the Gaelic 'mo mhac (my son)', which was pronounced 'mo wack'.

'My son,' was for long an address of endearment between friends in Liverpool pubs as in, 'Your turn to get 'em in, my son'.

Tulloch, the son of Bob, an insurance agent, and Margaret, an office manager, was brought up in Aintree and educated at Rice Lane Primary School, before failing the 11-plus and entering Warbreck Secondary Modern School. However, he took the second chance of the 13-plus and was transferred to Hillfoot Hey High School, Woolton.

At Warbreck he started learning French. He says: 'I had never really been interested in school subjects until then, but I found this ability to learn languages which I had not expected.'

There was a complete set of Dickens at home, but Tulloch's mother tended to think of books as 'dust harbours'. In those days, Russia was very much in the news.

There was the death of Stalin (1953), the invasion of Hungary (1956) and various spy scandals.

Tulloch began teaching himself the rudiments of the language and then at grammar school he began learning Spanish.

Several teachers noted his linguistic potential and he was competent in French, Spanish and Russian by the time he entered Manchester University. There, his main subject was Russian with French as a subsidiary.

With his BA, Tulloch became a teacher in Belfast and then a lecturer in languages at the RAF school in Rutland, leaving there in 1982 to teach languages at an Army school in Kent, where he retired in 1999. …