Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

I admit, I’m a bit geeky, especially when it comes to words or books – and when there’s a book about words, I turn from ‘a bit geeky’ to ‘full blown geek mode’. That’s where I am now. What is The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth? It’s not an academic work, that’s for sure, nor a thesis, nor a highly-focused and heavily detailed linguistic magnum opus. It’s also not boring, or stuffy, or in fact anything it doesn’t claim to be. If I had to describe The Etymologicon in one sentence, I’d probably say it’s an etymological stream of consciousness that, as promised, goes full circle and leaves you smiling from ear to ear. ‘Romp’ is not a word that I use often but actually, it’s a word that fits this book well – it’s a good humoured, rolling romp through the history and origins of a whole bunch of words that are barely yet humorously strung together by Forsyth’s flitting conscious.

I’ve read a fair few reviews of this book, and quite a number criticise it for not being academic, for the language being too ‘chummy‘, for it bounding along without much obvious direction, but these people have quite clearly missed the point. Given the way that Forsyth’s intelligence and clear ability to research shines through his writing, I have absolutely no doubt that he could, should he choose to, write a very formal dissertation or terrifying tome of academic greatness. I also have absolutely no doubt that that is not what he was going for in this book. Instead, it’s a book for everyone. It’s an accessible, easy to read, and heartily enjoyable book about etymology that isn’t designed to rot away in some university library. The reason it sounds like you’re talking to a guy down the pub is because that’s how it’s intended – and having a chat about it in the pub is a great way to celebrate this book.

Forsyth’s humour and his ability to play with language is quite something to behold (jokes about misplaced apostrophe’s and rather poultry sums keeping my legs crossed to prevent a touch of the ol’ giggle-pee escaping, for example). Mix that with a heap of intelligence and some really fascinating history that goes all the way back to before time began (or maybe not quite that far), and you’ve got a book that is not only entertaining but educational too – I’ve certainly learned some interesting titbits. And boy, have I had fun forcing those nuggets of information on other people! The following transcript of my husband and I in the supermarket this morning is the perfect example of how this book has affected my life:

Husband: Shall we get some turkey?
Me: Ooo! I know why we call it turkey! I read it in that book I told you about.
Husband: Okay. Shall we get some turkey?
Me (a little dejected): Don’t you want to know why we call it turkey?
Husband (blank stare and a blink)
Me: It’s reeeaaaally interesting. Don’t you want to know?
Husband (with a shake of his head): No. I want to know whether we should buy some turkey.
Me (with a defiant shrug): Okay, well I’m going to tell you anyway… (if you want to know what I told him, you’ll have to read the book for yourself 😉 )

I enjoyed this book so much that I went out and bought another two books by this author as soon as I’d finished, and I’m kicking myself for having forgotten as many interesting titbits as I have already. It’s a lighthearted frolic through the world of etymology. A word of warning though: if you’re not interested in the subject, you’ll probably find it boring; if you’re an etymological buff with heaps of knowledge, you’ll probably find it a little light on detail and explanation. But if, like me, you have a love of words, you’ve looked up the odd etymological treat before, and you fancy reading something light and fun that might poke a few more interesting facts into your brain, this book is definitely for you.


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