Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Etymologicon and other books on etymology

In the previous post, I answered the first question from our correspondents (idioms with the names of body parts in them) and promised to answer the other one I had received during the break. But before doing that, let me offer my thanks and apologies to the reader who found a dreadful typo in the Latin phrase. Believe me: it is indeed a typo! I can only refer to the Russian saying that a sword does not cut off (“sever”) a repentant head and appeal to mercy before justice (Gnade vor Recht, as they say in German). Typos are a strange thing: one always misses the most obvious, the most glaring ones.

The second question concerned the book titled The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections by Mark Forsyth (New York: Berkley books, 2011. 279 pp.). The reader wrote that whenever she searched for books on etymology, that title invariably popped out as No. 1, as the best, etc. She asked me whether I could recommend it as a textbook for her high school students.

Let me begin by saying that assigning numbers to books (No. 1 or No. 2, or No. 10) is a thankless endeavor. We can say that The OED is the most complete English dictionary or that Hamlet is the most famous of all Shakespeare’s plays. There is likewise no harm in saying that a certain book is interesting, provocative, or conversely, uninformative, stodgy, and so forth, but “the best” and “the worst” should, in my opinion, be avoided. Who assigns those labels and on what grounds? Countless popular books deal with the origin of English words. Most have been written by non-linguists, that is, by engaged amateurs who can spin a good tale but have nothing new to say. This genre is useful and serves its purpose: readers (who are also non-specialists) are grateful for getting the information of which they have been previously unaware. The most successful popular books on etymology known to me were written about a hundred years ago by Ernest Weekley (1865-1954), a Romance scholar (who is also the author of a semipopular etymological English dictionary), and I am sorry that so few of them have been reprinted.

The Etymologicon started as a blog. The author characterizes himself as “a writer, journalist, proofreader, ghost writer and pedant. He was given a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary as a christening present and never looked back.” On the cover, his book is called #1 International Bestseller. I assume that this line is the source of the ranking our correspondent found on the Internet.

Those who have used the first and some subsequent editions of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language know that an addendum to it contains a list of reconstructed Indo-European roots. Multiple words, seemingly unrelated in the modern language, are believed to stem from the same source. But one need not go back to prehistory, to discover amusing or puzzling connections. Compare stupendous, stupid, and stupor. A look at blank, black, bleak, and bleach reveals more complicated and not entirely clear ties. Another knot is pension, stipend, compensation, and pesos (p. 194). In dealing with English words of Romance origin, one runs into hundreds of similar examples. Forsyth explores many such obvious and hidden clusters. He also examines numerous other situations that one expects from a “popular book.” Among them are frequentative suffix (-le, as in fizzle, jostle, and so forth) and folk etymology.

A courtyard pathway: a sheer tautology. Photo by form PxHere.

Forsyth often looks at words belonging to the same semantic sphere, such as drugs, or simply tells an entertaining story. Typical examples are the origin of the word tank and of the names of drinks like vodka and whiskey. Some essays are trivial, others show that he noticed an important phenomenon but did not quite realize how important it is. For instance, he mentions such place names as River Esk (pp. 174-75), that is, “River Water”: Esk goes back to a Brythonic word for “water,” and the result is a tautology, but the reader misses the information about the frequency of tautological compounds. Words like pathway, gangway, courtyard, sledgehammer “hammer-hammer,” and perhaps slowworm “snake-snake” and henbane, presumably, “death-death,” show that this curious redundancy is not limited to geography (see my post for June 21, 2006). Also, idioms attracted Forsyth’s attention. He mentioned the funny phrase before you can say Jack Robinson (p. 53) but was unaware of several more or less plausible explanations of it and vouched for the least convincing one. I also read with genuine surprise that “monkeys are called after monks” (p. 182). Monkey is a hard word and has to be treated seriously. (If anyone is interested, see my post for January 23, 2013.)

The river Esk. View south along the River Esk from Whitby New Bridge by Jeff Buck, CC BY-SA 2.0.

To summarize this volume would be hard, because it consists of odds and ends: something about dictionaries, suffixes, and compounding, and something about alcoholic drinks and obscenities. Though a few sections produce a more or less systematic narrative, the indebtedness of the whole to a blog is clear at every step. There is nothing wrong with it, however. Think of books of fairy tales (One Thousand and One Nights, for instance): they don’t have to form a coherent whole. But I would hesitate to recommend Etymologicon as a textbook. I also winced at the author’s attempt to appear perennially relaxed and funny. Consider such passages as “Once upon a time there was a fisherman called Simon. He fell in with a chap called Jesus” (p. 135). “Funny chap Jesus. First, it’s a little strange to assert that a piece of bread is your body. If you or I tried that[,] we wouldn’t be believed. We certainly wouldn’t be allowed to run a bakery” (p. 166). Should an author always sound facetious to engage the readership?

Most emphatically: no connection. Via Pixabay and Pexels.

One can see that my opinion about this book is mixed. The collection is a mishmash and lacks depth, but this was of course to be expected, and such a reproach can be used against any author of a popular book on etymology. That Forsyth knows a lot need not come a surprise: anyone who spends years reading the OED, naturally, absorbs tons of useful information. Therefore, the reader will learn many interesting things from Etymologicon. Forsyth finds himself on treacherous terrain when he leaves his authority and ventures into the open. However, my main objection to Etymologicon is that it lacks style. I don’t believe that any author should beclown oneself and speak about that “funny chap Jesus,” to make an essay sound attractive. As for its being No. 1, let the public decide.

Feature image: Lexicographical order by Thomas Guest. CC by 2.0, via Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.