Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Wordsmiths and Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal


I’m a bit of a sucker for glove compartment books. You know the sort – the ones that are so large (like Simon Jenkins’ England’s Thousand Best Churches and Thousand Best Houses) it would be quite handy to have a small cattle trailer to cart them around in when you go out in the car.

Wordsmiths and Warriors is one of those … a book you really need to keep in the car, but which isn’t remotely suitable for the purpose. Fortunately, it’s also an excellent bedside ‘dipping into’ book that you can open at any chapter and just read for the joy of it … and a joy is what it is to read.

Subtitled The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain it’s a gazetteer of Britain, but with a difference. It is, in David Crystal’s own words, “about the English linguistic heritage of Britain as encountered through the places which shaped it”.

You will search in vain for any but passing mentions of Jane Austen, the Brontë family or Charles Dickens, because this is not a literary guidebook; it is a chronological journey which starts at Pegwell Bay on the Isle of Thanet, where the Anglo-Saxons first arrived in Britain in 449, to University College London, the home of the landmark Survey of English Usage.

Literary figures are included of course – but only those who materially shaped the English language, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Robert Burns and Dylan Thomas. They rub shoulders with Kings, monks, grammarians, entire organizations and the Empire Windrush.

In no other book will you move from John Dryden via the Royal Society to Tim Bobbin and Dr Johnson – or from John Smith (yes – the Pocahontas John Smith) via The East India Company to King James and the botanist John Ray.

The Crystals (David handling the words and Hilary wielding the camera) lead us cheerfully on a journey they actually made themselves, visiting the places (a large number of them churches – of which, more in due course) most closely associated with the movers and shakers of the English language.

David wanted to know if the two opposing armies during the Battle of Maldon could really have hurled insults at each other across the River Blackwater. So they went down to Maldon and tried it. As you do.  In order to identify the plaque marking the location of Gresham House, where The Royal Society was effectively born, they grovelled behind a newsstand outside Tower 42 in the City of London (a dustpan and brush also featured in this saga). We’re treated to photographs of a pavement, a road junction and bollards because that’s approximately where Caxton’s printing house would have stood; we go to Cerne Abbas not to admire the charms of the Cerne Abbas giant, but to visit with “the greatest vernacular prose writer of his time” – Ælfric – and be treated to yet another photograph of yet another ecclesiastical building. (We do also get a photograph of the Giant, just to keep us happy …).

David Crystal apologizes for the number of photos of churches: “Another day, another abbey” … but points out that the history of written English was in the hands of monks for well over 700 years, so … another photograph of another church it unavoidably is. Sometimes it’s a photograph of the place an ecclesiastical building would have been had it not been demolished. We’re also shown the rear entrances of buildings, a branch of J D Wetherspoons in Greater Manchester and a summerhouse covered by a tarpaulin because someone had nicked the lead from the roof for the third time.

Wordsmiths and Warriors is a labour of love, enthusiasm and mild eccentricity, demonstrating a mindset that will be familiar to anyone who has ever systematically sought out and photographed anything and everything connected with their own personal obsessions, however obscure. As someone who has a vast collection of photographs of ditches, muddy banks and chunks of masonry which only I know are obscure bits of Hadrian’s Wall, I was on entirely the right wavelength to enjoy this book to the full, but I suspect those of a more academic turn of mind than mine might find its puckish sense of humour a bit hard to cope with.

The book includes full instructions on how to find all the locations, where to park, where to find the various bollards, newsstands, lumps of rocks and any other coincidental delights (like The Good Bag Shop) along the way. It’s like a long and chatty guide written by a close friend … only in this case the friend happens to be one of the world’s foremost  authorities on language, who wears his learning very lightly indeed.

Oxford University Press. 2013. ISBN-13: 978-0199668120. 432pp.

3 comments on “Wordsmiths and Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal

  1. Jackie
    October 31, 2014

    This sounds like a very entertaining book & I hope I can find it over here. The humor you describe would make it very enjoyable and I like the idea of seeing those spots in the present day, though some of them must be disappointing.
    I’ve never heard of the authors before, so this book would be very educational all the way around.

  2. gertloveday
    October 31, 2014

    Here’s another giant book for you: “The Novel- a Biography” by Michael Schmidt. You;ll never need another book for the rest of your life.

  3. Hilary
    November 1, 2014

    Thank you – must get this, and soon! Right up my street (ha ha).

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