ETYMOLOGICON: ISBN 9781848314535
HOROLOGICON: ISBN 9781848315983
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 19 01 14
Books of erudition for sheer delight
In December of last year I reviewed for this site Mark Forsyth’s wonderful book THE ELEMENTS OF ELOQUENCE – and in fact also included it in my ‘pick of 2013 shows’. I was so impressed by this book, with its mixture of erudition and fun, that I searched out his two earlier books – THE ETYMOLOGICON and THE HOROLOGICON. I’m glad I did.
For anyone interested in language – and how could anyone interested in drama not be? – these are veritable goldmines. While they are both marvellous, I confess to a favourite – THE ETYMOLOGICON, more of this one anon.
Behind each of Forsyth’s books is a game-like structure. In HOROLOGICON he introduces us to words relevant to each hour of the day. So, for instance, for 6 o’clock he lets us know there is a word to describe that state of mind that has you worrying in the grey dawn hours and stopping you getting up. Then there’s the glorious word ‘aubade’ – but then who has time these days to lie in bed listening to their love singing to them at dawn, let alone being a lover and making the thing up before you sing it. The age of true Romanticism is, alas, dead.
Among other delights are an excellent section on weather (going to work); I would utterly recommend reintroducing the word ‘swale’ – northern word for windy, cold, bleak. We also learn the relationship between mercy shown to those about to be executed and commuting. In the 4 pm section we learn about tea (naturally) and I realise that I should be saying ‘cha’ unless I wish to appear raffish when I might use ‘tea’.
Walking home after a couple of pints the other night I slipped and fell on a wet pavement. Searching Forsyth’s book I realised I could have done with a ‘moon curser’ until I realised he might have robbed me so reckon I was probably better off ‘solivagant’. Delightfully Forsyth then explains the word ‘extravagant.’
In ETYMOLOGICON, Forsyth’s conceit is to investigate the etymology of connected words as a kind of linguistic relay race. It’s utterly fascinating; and each race is a glorious shaggy-dog story with a point that you can relate and astound your listeners. (Do acknowledge your source though!) Reading this book it’s astounding how much accident and coincidence is involved in the shifting meanings of words. True whether its tanks (armoured vehicles), assassins (vengeful killers) or bumf (meaningless paperwork.) Actually the last one is an example from THE HOROLICON.
In ETYMOLOGICON Forsyth explains cappuccino coffee via monks, monkeys from monks, and before you know it you’re in the Inns of Court among barristers, rather than ‘baristas’. It all seems so logical the way he explains it.
Take one thing away from these books and it’ll be how we take words for granted and don’t bother to wonder how they come about – the answers are themselves full of wonder. Like the relationship between the Chancellor of the Exchequer position and the game of draughts.
My favourite, though, and it truly beggars belief, is how the innocuous bracket (we know and love) is really named after the codpiece.