Mark Forsyth’s “The Etymologicon”

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how the meanings of these words have changed across time, and Mark Forsyth’s “The Etymologicon” is a fascinating and hilarious read about the etymology of everyday words used in the English language. He explains the structure of the book at the start – “I would start with a single word and then connect it to another word and then to another word and so on and so forth until I was exhausted and could do no more” – and in fact the connections between the chapters are presented in a very thoughtful manner. Instead of just linking words and their origins to one another, the chapters are also thematically organised, and complemented by a conversational writing style there is so much knowledge to appreciate.

English poet John Milton is said to have invented the word “Etymologicon”, or a book of etymologies, and in this particular book different technical processes or developments in etymology or linguistics were eased seamlessly into the overall narrative. For instance: Folk etymology, when unfamiliar words or phrases are replaced by more familiar ones (“The addition of the H to imbue … Somebody who didn’t know what an umble was saw the words umble pie and got confused”), clipping, when words are reduced to one of its parts (“When a phrase like mobile vulgatus or mobile peasants gets shortened to mob”), as well as antanaclasis, a rhetorical device in which a word or a phrase is repeatedly used, albeit with its meaning changed in each case (“Rhetorically, the sentence Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo is antanaclasic”).

And these observations are but a sliver of Forsyth’s book. Through the words and their relationships he highlighted figures and the words they invented (such as English poet and playwright William Shakespeare), the effect of socio-political and cultural changes on linguistics, and the influence of texts or dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary. “The Etymologicon” gets one excited not just about word origins alone but also their stories and histories, and overall it is a really fun, whimsical book which one cannot bear to put down.


This article was first published over at the blog of Mr Kwan Jin Yao on 26 April 2018. It is reproduced with permission.


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