Book Review – ‘The Etymologicon’ by Mark Forsyth

In the words of the front cover, this book is a ‘circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’. It’s all about words. It’s about origins and meanings and little facts. It’s also the most enjoyable book I’ve read since being at university. Forsyth takes a topic that’s interesting, but ostensibly not terribly engaging (otherwise you’d have to assume that more people would know about it) and turns it into a book that’s very funny and ridiculously entertaining.

Allow me to introduce you to some of the nuggets that I’ve picked up during my reading of this book:
• One who grunts frequently can accurately describes as a ‘gruntler’ (and one who grunts even more frequently could even be described as ‘disgruntled’).
• ‘Wamblecropt’ is a word from Middle English (c. 11th-15th century) meaning ‘afflicted with queasiness’, as in ‘I am wamblecropt’.
• Etymologically speaking, ‘feisty’ means ‘farty’.
• It’s technically required by law that all men between the ages of 14 and 60 in the UK practise archery at least once a week.
• Botox comes from a poison first discovered in bad sausages.

Any of my Twitter followers may well have seen some of those already in the form of the #FunFacts that I’ve been tweeting as I’ve progressed through The Etymologicon’s pages. For someone, like me, who enjoys learning slightly pointless factoids, this book is perfect. Not only do you learn the quirks of the English language, but you also learn other little things, such as the above fact about out-of-date archery laws, or Myles Coverdale’s hopeless attempt to translate the Bible into English (he didn’t speak Greek, Latin or Hebrew). Forsyth does take you on a circular stroll, starting and ending with the phrase ‘a turn up for the books’, but to do so he takes you through all sorts of different topics, from sausage poison to the CIA to ‘Capuccino Monks’.

As someone who enjoys writing, I think that there’s a lot I could learn from Forsyth’s easy-to-read, witty, funny style. This book made me laugh even more than the 100 Most Pointless Things in the World*! I mentioned at the start that this was the most enjoyable book that I’ve read since coming to university, and that means that I’m comparing it to books like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Iain Banks’ Transition and the legendary (quite literally) Poetic Edda. That’s not bad for a book that I picked off the shelf in the university book shop, pretty much at random (not completely at random: it was bright red and the title made the nerd in me do somersaults).

In all honesty, I cannot praise this book highly enough. If you’re one of those people interested in language and words, then it’s definitely for you, but I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about general knowledge: there’s just so much in there! It’s well written and very funny, and I look forward to reading more of Mark Forsyth’s work.

My rating: 10/10

*I must apologise sincerely to Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman. I still love you, and your reasoning for saying that a panda was one of the 100 most pointless things in the world did make me laugh very loudly.
the etymologicon

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