The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth


Etymology – the study of words and how their meaning has changed throughout history, and of the origins of a word.

This is an interesting book. The author ranges across continents, languages, ancient and modern societies, and even different species, in what seems to be a free association of thoughts.

I learnt that “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” is the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language, and the rest of the book is full of such weird and wonderful moments like that.

The author clearly knows his stuff, and tries to bring it across in a drily humorous style. Like all humour, sometimes it works, sometimes not. There is an awful lot of information here, and I only wish I had the kind of brain that can instantly recall these nuggets when the occasion demands, not the following morning when the memory finally surfaces!

The book will entertain, will of course have an “o really??” moment or two, and mostly will leave you with a smile on your face. I would recommend dipping in and out, as a straight-through read becomes a little tedious, and the stories beginning to blend.

The author does provide an overview (or “cream”) of his sources, rather than a detailed bibliography, so leaves it open to counter-argument and disagreements. That to me would be part of the fun, for like anything else people will always  find a reason to quibble (which derives from the now-obsolete “quib”, meaning petty objection, itself deriving from the Latin quibus. Or so I’m told!)

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