Literally: Amazing Words and Where They Come From

by | Oct 12, 2023 | Book Review, Illustrated book

Literally (cover)

Book Details

Literally: Amazing Words and Where They Come From
Patrick Skipworth, illus. Nicholas Stevenson. Tonbridge: What on Earth Books, hb. 978 1 9129 2017 4, 2020, £11.99, 32pp.
Illustrated book, 3+ years

12 well-known if rather unexpected words – Companion, Ukelele, Caribou, Mummy, Kookaburra, Zero, Worm, Royalty, Karaoke, Guru, Jaguar, Safari – are explored and their stories revealed.

These words were chosen to show geographical, historical or cultural connections, with illustrations to show both contemporary and past meanings. The text includes details of pronunciation, origin, English and original meanings, and four or five lines of explanation. The book ends with a double-page spread on language families around the world.

This is a fun way to explore language with younger children and will engage the interest of older readers. Broader questions are sometimes raised, for example ‘how do animals get their names’? ‘Caribou’ means ‘snow shoveller’ in Mi’kmaq, an indigenous language in Eastern Canada, so the name reflects the animal’s behaviour; other animals are named by sound (as shown in the ‘Kookaburra’) or appearance.

My favourite is ‘Zero’, an Arabic word meaning ‘emptiness’. The concept was borrowed by 16th century Arabic scholars from India, where they had no symbol but used the word ‘empty’. Later the circle we now use was introduced into sums.


Review by Pam Dix