The Etymologicon

Don’t you just love serendipity (from Serendip, the old name for Sri Lanka) especially when you stumble upon a book you really enjoy?

So it was with The Etymologicon which I came across when browsing the shelves of Waterstones while I was waiting to meet my son last week.

It describes itself as: ‘a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’ which is exactly what it delivers.

Written in short sections, it wanders through the unexpected origins of the words and phrases with each section leading on to the next until the final section takes you right back to page one.

The book began life as Mark Forsyth’s blog, The Inky Fool, and it shows. It’s snappy, well-written and witty which are the qualities that any blogger should aspire to.

It also makes you think about a major part of our lives that we take for granted – our language. For example:

  • Why is it that merit and meretricious are almost opposite in meaning, even though they share the same source?
  • Why is it that you can wage a war, but very little else?
  • What does John the Baptist have to with the best-known song from The Sound of Music?
  • Why did Celtic culture contribute so few words to the English language? (This is a genuine mystery)
  • How did the most famous coffee shop chain come to be named after a sedge-filled stream in Yorkshire?

The answer to these and many other things you didn’t know you didn’t know can be found in The Etymologicon which I would say is essential reading for all lovers of the English language, even Americans.

That last comment was a cheap shot since many of the words, phrases and spellings used in the US are closer to the original than we care to admit in the UK.

To prove the point that America has many things to offer the language, here is what is reputed to be the longest grammatically correct sentence in English that uses just one word:

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Nip over to Amazon to order the book and find out why word buffs love this antanaclasis.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

9 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 8th March 2012

    OK, pls indulge me and explain the Buffalo sentence.

  • rhymeswithplague 8th March 2012

    As Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating!”

    I second Roger Green’s motion.

  • Elizabeth 8th March 2012

    I have this book and totally agree with how good it is – and what could be nicer and more romantic than the star strewn banks of a Harrogate scenic beauty spot. Although I don’t drink coffee, I can well understand Jerry Baldwin’s logic in drawn to such a Yorkshire hotspot.

    Sex as early as 1379? Lusty lot, we Yorkshire folk…I expect before that we just lay amongst the sedge and got on with it without bothering to record the fact. x

  • Elizabeth 8th March 2012

    * ‘being’ drawn !!

    ‘O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
    Alone and palely loitering?
    The sedge is wither’d from the lake.
    And no birds sing.’

  • Pedantic Pudding 8th March 2012

    I will get that book some time soon. Thanks for the lead my learned friend. By the way, if you liked that you’d also appreciate Bill Bryson’s clever, well-researched and witty look at American English in “Made in America”. Very different from his travelogues but surprisingly just as entertaining.

  • Mr Parrot 8th March 2012

    Roger and Mr Plague: I shan’t publish the answer here, but it can be found on Wikipedia. You will miss out on other things though, like how the buffalo that are really bison gave rise to film buffs and the like.

    Elizabeth: I suspect that all that Yorkshire lustiness stems from, too much coffee keeping them awake at night.

  • john 8th March 2012

    hated Kate Beckinsale in it!

  • rhymeswithplague 9th March 2012

    I took your advice and hied myself over to Wikipedia, and now I fully understand the sentence “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.” Given its repetitive construction, it’s truly ironic that the best interpretation I can think of is “Bullying — it’s a never-ending cycle.”

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