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Words come and go from languages, but how do we know which words? And what if we lost some of the words we use the most? What if it’s not as simple as words staying alive if we all keep using them? What if they just disappeared, and it was as if they’d never existed?

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.

Background image of girl and boy


Nick Earls is the author of fifteen books, including five novels with teenage central characters. 48 Shades of Brown was a CBCA book of the year, and his other four young adult novels were Notable Books. After January was also shortlisted for the National Children’s Literature Award, won a 3M Talking Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted in the Fairlight Talking book Awards. The International Youth Library, Munich, included it in its White Ravens selection of international notable new books. It was the first of five of Nick Earls’s novels to become plays. Two have also been adapted into feature films.

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.


Terry Whidborne has worked in the advertising industry for many years, and is now recognised as one of Brisbane’s most award-winning senior Art Directors. But as Terry’s family grew, so did his interest in illustration. He began developing his style for clients such as Vogue, Virgin Blue and many of London’s top ad agencies, before deciding that what he really wanted to do was concentrate on books, film and animation. Terry’s first foray into books is the Word Hunters trilogy he co-created with Nick Earls. He lives in Brisbane with his wife and two kids.

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.

Word Hunters Book Cover

Book Four

Word Hunters: Top Secret Files is a compendium of quirky clues, histories and correspondence shared between Mursili, Caractacus and the other word hunters as they embark on their quest to uncover the origins of words and safeguard their existence into the future. A companion to the Word Hunters trilogy, it sees Mursili and Caractacus once more enlisting the help of twins Al and Lexi, as well as Grandad Al and other word hunters, as they track the roots of words such as ‘busk’, ‘feisty’ and ‘guy’. They also discover the history of the Latin alphabet and sport-specific vocabulary associated with tennis and cricket.

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The Golden Pegs

Caractacus needed a way to lock the words into place in history. He devised a mechanical peg with arms and a key.

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.

Click to see larger image of pegsclick to see the actual peg




Download the Layar App

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.

Written by a practicing teacher librarian in context with the Australian curriculum.


These notes may be reproduced free of charge for use and study within schools but they may not be reproduced (either in whole or in part) and offered for commercial sale.



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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 ...