Review: Curzan’s The Secret Life of Words

I’ve been a bit leery of The Great Courses , a line of products that offers downloadable lectures by university professors. The idea combines two things that I have problems with: the whole massive open online course (MOOC) idea and paying for internet content.

MOOCs, or at least the way they’ve been touted as the savior of higher education, are problematic for a lot of reasons, but none of them apply to The Great Courses. One thing that MOOCs are good for is offering course content to those who simply want to learn—an open university. As to the second, I listen to a lot of audio podcasts—when I’m walking the dog or riding the subway into work. And there’s a lot of great audio content that is free (that is offered at no charge by the creator; I’m not talking about pirated stuff), so paying for content seems wasteful. And to one living on a grad student’s stipend, free is important. But it’s not just a personal problem; The Great Courses offerings are expensive, often running $200 or more for a course. 

But when another linguistic podcast that I listen to—Slate’s Lexicon Valley—offered a deep discount on one particular course, I took the plunge, forked over the fifty bucks, and downloaded the course. The course is The Secret Life of Words, by Anne Curzan, a professor of English at the University of Michigan.  I know Curzan by reputation and the course content was right up my alley, so I figured that it couldn’t been too disappointing.

I was not wrong. Curzan’s scholarship is excellent, as I expected. (Actually, I didn’t find a single statement in all her lectures that I would quibble over; that’s a rare feat, as there is almost always some minor fact or opinion that I can disagree with.) Her delivery is also engaging, clearly presenting and explicating complex linguistic concepts in plain language. The focus of the course is the English lexicon and where words come from, although Curzan does delve into other aspects of linguistics as the need arises to explain lexical history. The lectures run the gamut from talking about Old English to modern sports slang. Lecture titles include:

  • Opening the Early English Word-Hoard
  • Chutzpah to Pajamas—Word Borrowings
  • The Tough Stuff of English Spelling
  • I’m Good ... Or Am I Well?
  • Wicked Cool—The Irreverence of Slang
  • Firefighters and Freshpersons
  • #$@%!—Forbidden Words

The course consists of thirty-six half-hour lectures. It’s available in both video and audio-only formats. I purchased the audio-only version, so I can’t say whether or not the video version is worth the extra money, but the course is completely comprehensible in audio-only, and at no point did I feel that I was missing content.

Now I’m still taken aback by the course’s list price of US$199.95 for the audio download ($374.95 for the DVD version). That’s a lot of money. But The Great Courses frequently offers sales and discounts through various outlets, so if you bide your time and watch for special offers, you can get the course for a lot less.

And right now there is a sale on all the language and literature courses, including this one. Until 14 May 2015 you can get audio download of The Secret Life of Words for $49.95.

If you’re reading this website, chances are you’re interested in the English lexicon and its history. That means this course is probably of interest, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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