Mark Forsyth – The Etymologicon

So when I said that the Elements of Eloquence was quite possibly the best book about the English language I had read this year I did add the caveat that I was yet to read The Etymologicon. The predictive caveat now seems wholly justified as The Etymologicon is indeed the best book about the English language I have read this year.

Reading it is like having the most interesting conversation you can imagine with one of the elves from the QI team (and in fact I think some of the content of the BBC show has been determined from reading this book). The origin of words, phrases and place names is something that has always fascinated me and so this book was a treat at every turn of the page.

Mark Forsyth is not only a learned etymologist he is also in possession of a very droll sense of humour and had this book been written by someone else it might not have been the amusing creation it is. Forsyth could perhaps make the driest of subjects fascinating, but given that I already possess a predilection for English the comic turns of his circular stroll through the concealed connections of the language simply represent icing on a cake already bursting with the tastiest of ingredients.

I am not going to waffle on about all the word origins he explains but if I remember half of what was in the book I will have improved my knowledge significantly in the act of reading The Etymologicon and have ammunition aplenty when I think a conversation may warrant a ‘did you know…’ In fact this Christmas has already seen witness to my summarisation of the roots of the words buffs, slaves, soldiers, cheques, and the origin of the company name Shell by way of an endorsement of Forsyth’s books.

Of all the books I may have recommended this year, I think this is my recommendation of the year. I was given The Horologicon which will complete the ‘trilogy’ and I’ll let you know whether it is as good as the other two some time in the new year. I also received four Philip K Dick books and so as expected my bookshelves are positively bowing under the weight of all the reading I have to look forward to.

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