Thursday, 1 March 2012

Review of The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

by George Hope

Did you know that the word ‘biscuit’ comes from the French bi-cuit or ‘twice cooked’? Did you know that the word ‘oxymoron’ comes from oxy(Greek for sharp) and moros (Greek for dull)? Did you know that the delicious frothy coffee known as the cappuccino originated from 16thcentury Italy and was named after monks who wore cappuccio hats and robes that were a creamy coffee colour? Why do we put wedding rings on the fourth finger? It comes from a tradition in which people believed that a vein ran directly from the fourth finger to the heart. Lovers would thus put a ring on the finger of their loved one because it was believed that you could ‘capture’ their heart – and love – by encircling this finger.
In The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth answers these questions and many more in exploring the fascinating and unpredictable history of etymology. In the preface he describes: “there’s something about etymology and where words come from that overcomes my inbuilt taciturnity”. The book’s title emphasises that it is a “circular stroll” and that is exactly what it is. Small chapters of no more than a page or so are combined to create a flowing effect, to which the reader becomes hooked as if reading a novel rather than a piece of non-fiction.
Forsyth concludes that it is “impossible to guess where a word has come from and where it is going to go”. One interesting excerpt from the book concerns bread. The Old English word for bread was “hlaf” (no, not half as Microsoft Word wants you to think) and from this we get loaf. Traditionally the woman was the bread-maker (hlaf-dige) and the man was the bread guard (hlaf-ward). Bear with me. This, in turn, gave usLord (hlaf-ward changed to hlaford, which in turn evolved into lavord which became Lord). Likewise, hlaf-dige became hlafdi, which evolved into lavedi and then Lady.
If you’re even half interested in where the words and phrases we use today came from, pick up a copy of The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, for a humorous and thought-provoking ‘stroll’ through the world’s third most natively spoken language. 
Alternatively, visit Forsyth's blog:


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