Did you know that a primary contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary cut off his own penis, before throwing it into a fire? As Mark Forsyth tells us, this is termed autopeotomy (ignoramus that I was before reading the book I didn’t know what this was). Before Forsyth’s The Etymologicon, I didn’t know that the Oxford English Dictionary, that pillar of English society (mostly used for the game of Scrabble, another pillar) was written by a Scotsman and an American. The Scotsman left school at 14, the American was, at the time of helping write the most influential dictionary ever, was in Broadmoor. Yes, it is that Broadmoor, the high-security hospital of psychiatry. This is only one of the strange quirks that defy belief in the anecdotes of English, and Forsyth is the perfect person to give us a guided tour of English.
Forsyth takes us on what is billed as “a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language”. The book most definitely does what it says on the tin, words which sound like other words, words which everyone has wondered if there is some relation; have their family tree mapped out here. The country Turkey and the animal are (pleasingly) related, Sardinia and sardines also, and surprising links which made me wonder why I’d never noticed them before-Gypsy and Egyptian, the suffix –zilla (which leads onto the fabulously narrated story of the bikini which I won’t spoil).
I only have a couple of minor quibbles with The Etymologicon. Reflective of the quality of the book, Forsyth explains nearly everything very well, but also very fast, which results in the reader wishing that he would spend a little longer on some of the points which were found more interesting-though there are many. The second is that the format gets a little repetitive, only a little, but the fact that there are hundreds of definitions in the book, and limited ways to present them leads to it reading a little listily, but this is only a little niggle.
The cover and format of the book is very nice, worthy, in fact, of mention. If you read a library copy, then the smooth texture of the book will be lost, and for such a small independent publishing company, they have done a very good job getting it printed so well.
However, that comes with a cost. A £12.99 RRP cost. Yes, it’s a hardback with ~250 pages. But there is no dustcover, no glossy inside cover, the paperback costs £5-6. That means that a harder cover costs £6, a fact which I highly doubt, and makes the reader (me at least) feel more than a little exploited.
Occasionally people make the mistake of asking me where a word comes from.
Narrative-Forsyth expertly guides the reader through an astonishingly confusing sea of phrases and words, plucking words from the air and linking them to what seems the most counter-intuative things, but gets a little repetitative-★★★★½
Readability-divided into very manageable chapters, this is both an excellent book to dip in and out of, and to read as fast as you can. Indeed, do both-★★★★★
Overall-fantastically informative, establishing the roots of common phrases and words, with a slightly wry voice guiding us on the tour of the English language-★★★★★ (98)
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