On June 26th, as part of Portsmouth Festivities, Mark Forsyth talked about his two best-selling books, The Etymologicon and The Horologicon, in PGS' Memorial Library. Aladdin Benali interviewed him afterwards.
What made you interested in etymology?
It was something that grew on me as a point of interest, rather than the sudden realisation that a word you are so familiar with has an interesting history. It is rather like finding out that one of your best friends has a criminal history. For example, the fact that the word "cappucino" comes from robes of Cappucin monk because they are the same colour. The fascination came from those little moments of realisation, not from a particular moment where I said, "Wow!" My interest built and built and built over time.
I study French and Spanish and I find that there are so many links between these languages and English.
Yes, there are so many links. For example, the American "contra dance" (involving partners dance in lines facing each other) comes from the French "contredanse", which, in turn comes from the English "country dance", so that the word dives from English into French and then comes back to English again.
You mentioned pool from poulet chicken.
Since writing that entry, I have discovered that there was a similar sport in England called cocksquelling, something you played on Shrove Tuesday; it was the same basic game of throwing sticks at a chicken for money.
Perhaps they might bring that back.
There was a long campaign in the nineteenth century to get rid of it, so it would be hard to get it back I think. Bloodsports have become rather unfashionable.
Is it hard to write a book?
I love writing. It is my favourite thing researching as I go along. With The Etymologicon, I had plans and then kept finding a better connection, a way of travelling I hadn't realised. I was always running off in a different direction to that which I had intended, surprising myself in the process.
When you find where a word comes from, can it change the way you see word? Can it help you in every day life?
Is it useful? Probably not. I am not sure there is any point in it really, but I enjoy it. And that is exactly how I feel about life: I am not sure whether there is any point to it, but I continue out of curiosity to find out more. It is always good to understand what's going on under the bonnet. I don't build cars or pretend to understand how to fix them, I am not a mechanic, but I drive and I wouldn't be human if I didn't want to know how it works, how it is put together. It's that natural human curiosity to find out. As words are all around us every day, everywhere, we want to find out: where does this word come from, what is the story behind it, what is it all about? It is a dull brain that doesn't ask this once in a while.
It is quite an academic discipline. Do you think you can prove these things, these wonderful stories? Largely, I have gone with the Oxford English Dictionary as the gold standard. I research the backgrounds to the stories and expand them out. You have to find citation after citation for a word, and trace slowly through. Here, say, it may have a particular meaning, but twenty years later it may mean something else but remain recognisable as the same word. Sometimes, it can be really awkward because a word may disappear underground for a hundred years and then come back. The "F-word" first comes up in the fourteenth century and I don't think there is another reference for another hundred years. There is a possible previous reference in Anglo-Saxon English, but that is 500 years previously, so you can't prove that has anything to do with it; you have to just drop the theory and leave it as point of interest. But usually you can trace these things with some degree of certainty; between the OED and the Dictionary of National Biography, you can go an awfully long way. With the "F-word", no one knows where it comes from; there are cognate words in the other European languages, so it appears to be some old word not written down until the late fourteenth century.
I liked your explanation of your name, at the end of your talk ("Mark" from Mars, meaning war, and "forsyth" peace: war and peace). Do you know where my name, Aladdin, might have come from?
I am going to take a guess that, with the beginning, "al", it is derived from Arabic, like other anglicised words such as alcohol, algebra and algorithm. About "addin", I don't know.
My mum suggested it means "height of the religion" .
Very possibly. That's interesting.
I am interested in foreign words we don't have equivalents for. I did some research. I think, for example, that the word "gigil"is the urge to squeeze somehing that is really cute.
And there's schadenfreude, which has been adopted in English now.
Yes, it is widely used in English now, but I think it's unfair to say there is no English equivalent. We have this word "gloat", which means to take pleasure in someone suffering, so it is not a peculiarly German thing. I do have a favourite word for which there is no equivalent in another language. Unfortunately, nobody knows whether it really exists; the word apparently first appeared in Tierra del Fuego: "mamaltamatapiaaltlapi", which means two people looking at each other and wanting the same thing but neither wanting to be the first to do it. It's very dodgy as to whether the word really existed, but it should be a word.
Talking of which, have you ever made up a word yourself?
There is one I put in The Horologicon and I pretended it was real. It does say so right at the back of the book. However, unless you check every word in every dictionary that I used and check each entry in The Horologicon against them, you'll never find what it was, and I shall take the secret to my grave.
Have you ever read The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams?
It's a fantastic book, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there are points where, because I am such a boring geek, I know that there are words that they say there are no words for. For example, where they introduce "affpuddle", saying that there is no existing word for a puddle hidden beneath the pavement which when you tread on it squirts up through your shoes, actually there is an eighteenth century English word, a "boatrap", for exactly that thing. But The Meaning of Liff is great fun.
My last question is: what do you think about this idea of monogenesis, that all languages are derived ultimately from the same source?
This is an utterly theoretical one because the question is an evolutionary one: humans basically can't survive childhood without a parent there, so, if the parent is speaking language, the child must pick it up from the parent, which implies that all human languages are related. However, we don't know whether the human species split up into different groups before the evolution of the voice box, and so it depends when that split occurred. We don't know exactly when the voice box developed because it is soft tissue and doesn't show up in fossils. All we can say with confidence is that all Indo-European languages, from Ireland through northern India, derive from proto-European and proto-Indian that probably only goes back to 4,000 BC rather than to the first language. Lots of other languages don't fit in, for example Arabic, Hebrew and Basque; the latter is isolate from any other neighbouring language, but is presumably related to something somewhere, but we will never know because we can only trace language back as far as writing goes, which is why, for example, Native American languages don't appear to be related but they could be because they just were not writing them down.
Bernstein writes that the word "mother" comes from the humming sound, most common sound.
Yes, "mama" and "dada" are the easiest sounds to make for a small baby, so they tend to be universal as parental terms, but we also have "father", related to "vater" in German and this goes back to Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, but it does not carry over to Semitic or Native American languages, but "mama" and "papa" are found there. However, in contrast, the more complicated words do seem to be defnied by language families.
It has been very interesting to speak with you. Thank you.
Thank you. It has been great to visit the school.
Read articles on 'The Etymologicon' by Joanna Godfree and George Hope