That’s where word hunters come in. Every so often a word is at risk, and it’s up to word hunters to track down every step of its past to keep it alive in the present. From the Battle of Hastings, to ancient cities they’ve never heard of, to encounters with great inventors, word hunters might find themselves anywhere any time dealing with anything.
For 1500 years, led by an ancient dictionary created by the mysterious Caractacus*, they’ve protected English from falling apart, one word hunter at a time. But now there are two – Lexi and Al Hunter, twelve-year-old twins from Fig Tree Pocket. They find the book in their school library during renovations, or perhaps it finds them. From that moment, their life can’t be the same again. Suddenly it’s 1877, then 1835, then 1100, then 925 as they chase down the possible history of the word ‘hello’ so that we can all keep saying it now.
But that’s only one word and the dictionary, as we all know, is full of them. And the past isn’t always a friendly place to drop in on ...
*perhaps not his real name.
While the English origin of the name Earls is the old Saxon word ‘eorl’ or ‘jarl’, meaning village elder, in Nick’s family’s case it began somewhere totally different – in Arles in France. It’s a place-based name. The family story behind it goes like this. When Hannibal of Carthage set out to attack Rome in 218BC, he established a base on the Rhone River before crossing the Alps. That base became a permanent settlement and took the Roman name Arelate, meaning ‘town by the marshes’. Over time that name became Arles. (History records that some Greeks or Phoenicians were there before Hannibal, but the town was called Theline then.) Around 800 years ago, someone from Arles who had taken the place name as a family name moved to England. Over the years, various different spellings emerged, ‘Earls’ among them.
To be honest, Terry hasn’t a clue where his family name comes from. Not that he hasn’t tried to find out. But Nick, not for the first time, has a theory. Whidborne looks like a classic place name, but where is it? Nowhere. So Nick started factoring in spelling variations and thought ‘Whid’ and ‘borne’ had the look of old Anglo-Saxon (or possibly Celtic) words, though they weren’t quite right. ‘Hwit’ – ‘now written as ‘Whit’ – was though, and meant ‘white’. After trying ‘borne’, ‘born’ and ‘burn’, he settled on ‘bourne’. ‘Whitbourne’ meant ‘white stream’ and it turns out to be a town in Herefordshire in England.
They operate quite simply but the workings behind are a bit of a mystery. So far we have worked out that the peg needs to be placed into the portal and locked. Al and Lexi work out that first the arms need to be swung down to ground level and then, with a turn of the key, locked into place.
An early version of the peg (probably a prototype by Caractacus) shows some cogs at the tip of the peg (see image top right). These, we think, gripped the portal so the peg would not get dislodged.
Only one peg is in existence today and will be in the Word Hunter Museum at a future date. See image bottom right.
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There are hidden facts for you to uncover behind Word Hunters: Top Secret Files pages. To get started, download the app onto any device – phone or computer. Ask your mum or dad if you have any questions. Then, as you read the book, find the symbol, scan the page and all the secrets will be revealed.
Want to find out more about where words come from? The word you’re looking for is ‘etymology’ – that’s the study of the origins and development of words.
Some words have fascinating stories, some don’t. Some of the stories told about the origins of words may not be true, however great they sound. Sometimes we simply don’t know, but some guesses are likely to be closer than others.
There are lots of interesting etymology websites. If you want to know when a particular word was first used and where it came from, one great choice is the Online Etymology Dictionary:
Don’t expect the whole story there though ...