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November 14, 2012 / Amy Bradney-George

Get Reading Book Review: Word Hunters – The Curious Dictionary

This week I received a shipment of books. But these were not just any books, they were the 50 Books You Can’t Put Down, sent to me courtesy of Get Reading and Mamamia.

Among the first of three boxes was a handsome cover with “Word Hunters” embossed in gold on the front. At first I though the subheading “The Curious Dictionary” meant that it would be some sort of dictionary for adolescents, perhaps with amusing words in it. But when I saw it was written by Nick Earls and illustrated by Terry Whidborne, I thought it could be more than that.

Word Hunters is, in fact, the story of a Al and Lexi. They are twelve-year-old twins who have very little to do with each other at school until they find a mysterious old book: The Curious Dictionary.

What follows is the story of their adventures through time as they find the origins and variations of words like “hello” and “water”, discovering a world of history far richer than either had ever thought possible for words.

The thing I love most about this book is that Earls and Whidborne have made words interesting in an incredibly engaging way. While reading an actual dictionary is quite dry (not to mention the epitome of nerdiness), making it into a story in the realms of speculative fiction brings every word to life.

It makes you aware of language use today, how it has changed and how it could change further. It’s like writing an essay about the importance of language, but with characters on an adventure instead.

The book is one you would find easily in the “young adult” or “pre-teen” section of a bookstore or library, but one I’d recommend to anyone. The tone, style and skill of the narrative make it hard not to compare it to Harry Potter, only Word Huntershas a stronger grounding in actual history. It is clearly well-researched and makes finding out about the origins of words we use very entertaining.

Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary.

This is a book I would give to young people (the back says 9+) as well as writers and anyone who loves reading. As an actor and writer, I thought it a pretty specific topic and enjoyed the escapism of Earls’ writing and Whidborne’s illustrations. It reminded me how important language is and that the changes in English are often very organic.

The allusions are fantastic too. At the back of the book is a timeline for language, with reference to some of the greats, including
“Beowulf” and “The Canterbury Tales” as well as a very lengthy, scrawled paragraph on Shakespeare.

The timeline, in particular, took me back to when I first started to actively think about where words came from.

A key moment for me was when I was studying Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale in my Year 12 Advanced English class. We got to listen to a recording of it in Middle English. To me (and the rest of the class) it sounded as if the voice actor was more than a little drunk. But I was surprised at how much I could understand.

Afterwards, I hunted down a copy of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English and read it (with the help of footnotes). Most of it was legible to me, and helped me understand just how old some of our words are.

Etymology (the history of words) became even more of an interest in my literature and history classes at uni, though it probably harks back to the first time I heard – and became enchanted by – Shakespeare.

The evolution of words and language, however, had always remained a pretty academic subject for me. Yes, I could talk for hours and hours about different plays and styles of writing, about the voices we use and how words we choose can evoke different feelings, but these discussions were always somewhat removed from fiction.

Earls and Whidborne have managed to combine the academic discussion with fiction in a really exciting way. Unlike Chaucer or Shakespeare who, I realise, are not everyone’s cup of tea, Word Hunters is accessible to almost everyone. It’s a light, easy read and I look forward to more of Al and Lexi’s adventures in the future (or past).


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