The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth

Review published on July 22, 2013. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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The Etymologicon, chosen as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week and topping the Sunday Times‘ bestselling list, has recently been published in paperback, a fact which is sure to delight wordsmiths everywhere. In his preface, Forsyth states the following: ‘There’s always an extra connection, another link that joins two words that most of mankind quite blithely believe to be separate’. He has chosen,in this volume to select a single word and see where it leads, following the same pattern ‘until I was exhausted and could do no more’.

The links which Forsyth has provided between every new entry and the one which precedes it are both clever and original. We therefore follow rather an intriguing path from Miltonian vocabulary inventions to the concept of the sky, from botulism to archery, from the mistaken identity of turkeys in Europe to unwelcome guests, and from butterflies to bow ties. Such a wealth of knowledge has been crammed into this relatively slim book, but as it has been written in a witty and amusing way, the reader never feels overloaded by it. Humour of some kind can be found on almost every page – for example, ‘testicles shouldn’t really have anything to do with the Old and New Testaments, but they do’, ‘Do you know the difference between the clouds and the sky? If you do, you’re lucky, because if you live in England, the two are pretty much synonymous’, and ‘The human body is beautifully and efficiently arranged (at least my body is)’.

Each entry in The Etymologicon is like a small essay of sorts, each of which has been written both informatively and succinctly. The vast majority of these entries have been given both marvellous or amusing titles, which range from ‘Miltonic Meanders’ and ‘Frankly, My Dear Frankfurter’, to ‘The Old and New Testicle’ and ‘Sausage Poison in Your Face’. Throughout, Forsyth sets out the origins of words and phrases – for example, ‘a turn-out for the books’, ‘the bush telegraph’ and ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ – as well as detailing which of the words we take for granted were stolen or amended from other languages.

The Etymologicon is a word nerd’s dream. It is an absolutely fascinating and marvellously imagined book, and an incredibly welcome one for lovers of linguistics everywhere. It is truly a great addition to any bookshelf, and is sure to delight even the most discerning reader of non-fiction.

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