The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth

I bought this book because (a) it looked like it might be interesting and (2) Amazon offered to put it on my Kindle for just 99p. This turned out to be a good deal, as it was a lot of fun to read[1].

But I do have a complaint: why did nobody tell me about author Mark Forsyth’s Inky Fool Blog before? From the quick look I’ve had so far, it looks like exactly the sort of thing I should be reading, and it was the progenitor[2] of this book, which takes a wander through the English language, looking at the origins of words, the links between them, and has a lot of fun and footnotery in the process. Err, I think I mean that the author had a lot of fun rather than the book enjoying itself. Probably. Each short chapter leads to the next, sometimes in a contrived fashion, sometimes quite naturally. But be very careful: the last chapter leads to the first, so if you’re not paying attention, you’ll find yourself stuck in an infinite loop, and you’ll never read anything else again.

The preface offers some explanation for the book’s existence:

Occasionally people make the mistake of asking me where a word comes from. They never make this mistake twice.

Mark then goes on to describe how he started telling a victim about the etymology of the word biscuit, which led him on to masochism and a hippopotamus, though not a masochistic hippopotamus, which would be silly. After that person ran away, Mark’s family and friends having decided that secure psychiatric care wasn’t an option, persuaded him to do this sort of thing in a book instead, and here it is.

This is not a serious or definitive reference work, but rather an entertaining look at just some of the oddness in our language, filled with anecdotes and a good healthy dose of snark:

Myles Coverdale was an early Protestant who believed in principle that the Bible should be translated into English. He decided that, as nobody else seemed to be doing it, he had better get on with the job himself, and he didn’t let the tiny detail that he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew get in his way. This is the kind of can-do attitude that is sadly lacking in modern biblical scholarship.

And wise thoughts

However, poetry is much more important than truth, and, if you don’t believe that, try using the two methods to get laid.

And in the notes at the end, he mentions some of his reference material, having declined to include an actual bibliography on the grounds that it would be twice the size of the book, and discusses the problem that arises when multiple sources disagree on word origins.

Usually, rather than take you carefully through all of the arguments and counter-arguments, I have simply picked the one that I believe is most likely and recounted that.

Now that’s an attitude I can get along with quite nicely – there were a few points where I did wonder about some of his etymological claims, but overall I went with the flow and enjoyed it enormously. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys words. Of course, I’m the sort of person who reads OED entries and sends them to friends[3], so I may have something in common with Mark.

In one of those curious coincidences that either mean nothing at all, or suggest that the universe is indeed having a laugh at our expense, while I was reading the Etymologicon, the ubiquitous xkcd came up with this little gem:


As usual, click to see the whole thing in its native habitat. And this was followed a few days later by this:

Click to see it all

Any suggestion that Randall[4] is observing me will be denied.

Update: Mark has posted about the xkcdness. Read it – especially the last bit.

[1] And I blame it for me getting the bus to work over the last few days. I wanted the extra reading time.
[2] Oooh, fancy word time!
[3] And those friends are always delighted by these gifts![5]
[4] Mr xkcd
[5] Isn’t that right, Twisty?

4 thoughts on “The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth

  1. alf stone

    I’m a slow reader but I’m getting there and thanks for the link to the blog, I am amazed that I haven’t come across it before.

  2. Pingback: Get some bargain ebooks! | Losing it

  3. Pingback: The Horologicon – Mark Forsyth | Losing it

Comments are closed.