Well, this is definitely a story. About English. And it is very rude (lots of swearing, archaic and present-day). So in that sense, I suppose Tom Howell delivers exactly what is promised by the title The Rude Story of English.
I really hesitate to call this a work of non-fiction. Oh, there are facts in here. But Howell is very careful to hide them amongst a quite frankly impressive cornucopia of tall tales and speculation, or as he calls it, asterisking. He proposes to explain the evolution of English over the centuries through the perspective of an unusually long-lived protagonist called Hengest, whom Howell co-opts from a quasi-historical Angle believed to have landed on the shores of Britain in AD 449. Hengest consciously and unconsciously influences the development of English from an offshoot of continental Germanic tongues into the imperialistic, colonial juggernaut it became today. As Howell races through the centuries, he concentrates on the rudest, most inappropriate parts of the story.
It’s meant to be funny and entertaining, obviously, and in some ways it is. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I laughed out loud that much. Honestly, “rude” humour has never been my favourite type; it was more so the drier parts of the book that got to me. But if you do like your humour rude and crude, you would probably enjoy this a lot more.
So don’t get the impression that, as I bang on about how this isn’t a very academic book, and it’s really hard sometimes to tell if Howell is being serious or just fabricating yet another tale, that I am condemning The Rude Story of English. I just want my review to make it clear, for anyone thinking of reading this but not sure what they’re getting into, what to expect from this book. You are not getting an academic, heavily-cited work here. That isn’t to say Howell is ignorant or uninteresting or that you will learn nothing of English’s history. Just … take whatever you do learn with a grain of salt. Maybe don’t go around repeating it at parties. (Or maybe do, and that’s why you keep getting invited to parties—I’m not the expert at this.)
I will admit to learning (shock, gasp, horror) some things from this book. For one, Howell does a great job showcasing the difficulty of piecing together the historical record. So much of the early printed English word just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s like a fossil record: sometimes there are missing links, specimens we must infer rather than have direct knowledge of. Howell points out how little we might know of someone, or of their work, and the extent to which historians over the centuries have fabricated or exaggerated the facts to help their theories. This book is a good reminder that “history” is not this single, received story set in stone but is indeed a quixotic, problematic, constantly evolving story incredibly vulnerable to the whims and biases of those who tell it.
Not a fan of the illustrations and diagrams, myself, but if you like that sort of thing you might really enjoy them here too.
The Rude History of English didn’t work great on me, but I can easily see it working great for other people.