The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

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The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

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Category: Trivia
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A witty, hilarious and all round wonderful look at the origins of words. And who doesn't like words?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Icon
ISBN: 978-1848313071

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I like words. Words are awesome. End of. But I also like trivia. I like knowing things that perhaps other people don’t, and helpfully passing on this knowledge to them. So a book about word-related trivia is just a win-win, and this one is so good I think we’ll have to call it a win-win-win.

Pick a word, any word. Do you know where it comes from? Do you know what it used to mean? Or how it got from German to English or Arabic to English or any other language to English? Do you care? If you do, you need this book which picks a wonderfully diverse yet interconnected series of words and phrases and dissects their origins, complete with literary quotes (nice fun ones, not the boring poncy sort), heart stopping anecdotes and hilarious if potentially flawed logical conclusions.

It's a naughty book because it behaves like a soap opera with a cliff hanger in almost every section. Except, unlike with a soap where you have to wait a day or a week to find out what happens next, here the answer is on the next page and the impulse to read just one more is too great to resist until it’s lunch time and you realise you’ve spent all morning reading and not actually done any work yet.

This is an extremely chatty book in a you’ll never guess what... kind of way. It’s not overly familiar, like a stranger sharing their stories of piles with you, but more like a good friend or gossip magazine columnist filling you in on the news. It’s self-deprecating in places, but that just makes it even more cute and fun to read. And it’s chock full of information too. I didn’t know half the stuff it mentioned though I had heard several of the myths being debunked, and since I’d oft suspected most weren’t true, I’m thrilled that I now have the evidence to confirm this. It’s not all remote, either – some things I’ve heard before, from other language books or from linguistics courses, reappears which reassured me that the new things I’m reading are also true, if you see what I mean, and not just the creative imaginations of a witty writer. It’s a combination that works well, the new and the familiar, the reasonable and the facts that will cause a double take. You may already know that

Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo

for example, but did you know that

Saya suka suka rama-rama rama-rama?

Because I really do, you know, which would be evident if you’d ever been to my house.

A book like this would be nothing without a little naughtiness, so of course we need some toilet humour (as in humour about toilets) and some rude words and some fart jokes. Fart jokes are always funny. Especially when they involve Her Majesty.

The quiz section at the back may be short, but it’s punchy. Would you invite a noble wolf who lives in a hut to dinner? If you’re not sure, you need page 238 to tell you. Would you party with a tattooed javelin thrower? You might if you knew her other name. And if you’re dying to know which TV talent show can legitimately claim to be producing warbling cows, the answer for that is there too.

I adored this book. I read and read and then I read some more until it was all gone. It was just my cup of tea, well presented, engaging, witty, wonderful. Full of usable facts and great anecdotes, it’s one of the only ‘history’ books I’ve read this year that was anything other than dull as dishwater. Full marks.

Thanks go to the publishers for sending us this book.

Combine this with Toujours Tingo by Adam Jacot de Boinod and you'll have more trivia than you'll know what to do with and/or be a hit at literary pub quizzes, should such a thing exist.

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Buy The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth at


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