Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

Ever wondered where certain words, terms and common phrases came from? Such trends as “playing chicken”, “gene pool”, “turn up for the books” and even “avocado”? You’d be surprised at some of them and shocked when you find that the latter came about because of a comparison with male genitalia in the language of the Inca which evolved when the Spanish misheard it and evolved again when heard by English ears. All the while you are eating an avocado, you are eating something the Inca thought looked like giant testicles.

Why do Americans write checks but speakers of British English write cheques? How on Earth could black and white have identical meanings? And how do the words black, blank and bleach have the same origin? Why would Hitler have been deeply offended at being called a Nazi? What older and more offensive meaning did it have “how could it possibly be as offensive as it’s modern meaning?!” you ask – and yes, from a certain point of view it would have been; this may also have been a deliberate linguistic engineering tool by his enemies inside Germany before he rose to power.

This is the story, in part, about the wonderful English language. Most of us have no doubt wondered where these popular quotes and phrases have come from when we’ve no way of comparing them to other things. This is the book you never knew you wanted and it lists all the quotes invented by John Milton amongst others – a terrific, stunning book. I was rather awestruck by it. If you’re often stuck door wondering where a word might have come from, this could be a silver lining (yes, they’re all his, including that last one).

I love books like this for the quirkiness and informative nature they need to be written in. Often, they can be quite dense in terms of the text, style and tone, almost snobbishly elitist. That is not an accusation you can level at this though. The lessons come thick and fast, almost avalanche like as the writer moves from one quick explanation to the next, often in the same sentence and surprisingly – the chapters run into each other as he sets up a kind of cliffhanger. If it was a lecture it would be exhausting to listen to but clever in its delivery so in book format it works very well.

A fantastic read for a long train journey, I lazed through it during a trip home from Cornwall this weekend.

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