I’m going to start off with a quick book review of “The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language” by Mark Forsyth. It’s no fantasy epic or anything like that, but the topic of etymology, the origins and histories of words, is one which has long fascinated me. Back at college I would sometimes sit in the back of my English Lit class ignoring the Penguin Classics the teacher was going on about to read where words came from in the dictionary of etymology (I know, I really was one of the cool kids back then). If you ask me, there are some really interesting stories behind the routes words take from ancient languages like Latin and Greek to modern day English, and The Etymologicon is a journey through the obscure and intricate histories of many of the words and phrases we use in our everyday lives, including the rude ones.
I use the word ‘journey’ to describe this book because you could almost draw a map of the route Mark Forsyth takes the reader on as he navigates from one word to another, each new word somehow related to the one before it. The end result is a series of short, inter-connected linguistic stories which flow well from one chapter to the next. It is a testament to the author’s passion for the subject matter and his writing skill that The Etymologicon doesn’t feel anything like reading a dictionary, instead being more like a broad, continuous story composed of countless smaller tales, helped by regular injections of lexical humour to lighten the tone. I found it surprisingly easy to treat it like the fiction novels I’m more accustomed to reading, and combining that comfortable flow with the short chapter length made it incredibly difficult to put this book down. When the end of one chapter hints towards the contents of the next one and most of those chapters are only a handful of pages long it’s far too easy to convince yourself that you have time for ‘just one more’ each time you reach a chapter break. A few of the ‘links’ tying one chapter to the next felt a little tenuous, but fortunately that didn’t make them any less interesting and it was the only real criticism I have of the book.
If you are the slightest bit curious about how language develops over centuries, which long-forgotten ancient tradition links the Old & New Testaments to male genitalia, why people are increasingly willing to inject themselves with sausage poison, how Vikings in 8th century Yorkshire created one of the 21st century’s most recognisable American brand names and what links psychoanalysis to releasing butterflies then The Etymologicon is a book you need to read. Though some of the links between one word and the next are a bit of a stretch, the flow never suffers because of it and from the first chapter to the last it remains an easy read and an entertaining stroll through the English language. Mark Forsyth has managed to take a subject which sounds as interesting as reading the dictionary (literally) and produced a very light and readable book, sweetening the underlying linguistic history lessons with plenty of storytelling and humour to make them much easier to digest. The subject itself does mean it’s still not for everyone, but it’s incredibly accessible and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. No doubt I’ll read it again whenever I fancy a quick refresher course.