Review: The Horologicon – Mark Forsyth

Christmas Gifts for Readers No. 4

I’m writing a set of five articles covering items which would in my view make great presents for people who love books and reading.  I have no financial or commercial interest in any of these products and I’m only writing about them because I think most readers would be pleased to receive them as a gift.

It was about a year ago that I reviewed Mark Forsyth’s book, The Etymologicon, which gave me a great deal of entertainment last Christmas as I followed him on an etymological word trail discovering how one word links to another.

This year, Mark has followed up his success by publishing The Horologicon in which he takes a different approach by producing a “Book of Hours” in which obscure words are grouped according to different hours of the day.  The Horologicon makes no pretence at being a dictionary, for these words have generally been lost from everyday speech and can only be found in some very strange and obscure places (in which Mark seems to spend quite a lot of his time!).  Its a witty and entertaining book which would be appreciated by anyone who likes to receive a book for Christmas.

Unlike other people who write about words, (such as the etymologist David Crystal), Mark professes to have no academic qualifications in this area but nevertheless, his sheer enjoyment of words and deep study of them shines through every page of this attractively produced book.

This collection, like the last one is a product of Mark’s fascinating and very successful blog, The Inky Fool which I and many other people regularly visit for its stories about our peculiar English language.  I only hope that those who speak English as a second-language don’t use it as an authoritative source because they might meet some consternation if for example they ask a new friend gout for a drink by  suggesting that they come “fuddling in a bibbery” (over-drinking in a pub).

In 19 chapters with titles such as Waking and Washing, Lunch, Shopping and Wooing, Mark gathers together a vast range of unusual words and writes his usual witty commentary linking them together. Along the way we learn lots of little known facts about the world which spawned these obscure terms.  For example, in Victorian England when literacy was not something that could be relied on in the general population, a screever was a professional writer of begging letters, and Mark found a typical price list of the time:

Friendly letter 6d
Long ditto 9d
Petition 1s
Ditto with signatures 1s 6d
Ditto with forged names 2s 6d

But when you received a letter written by a screever you could could employ an answer-jobber to reply on your behalf.  If only a short reply was required this could be called a notekin, a breviate of a letterling and the omnibus letter was something like an email addressed to several people.

Not all Mark’s words are archaic – he has great fun taking us around shopping malls and supermarkets and introducing us to the gondolas (the lines of free-standing, two-sided shelves the divide the aisles), the islands (free standing displays of tubs of crisps, tights or whatever else is on offer), the danglers (the pennants that advertise Twenty, Thirty or Forty Percent Off Selected Products!), the shelf miser (the little tray affixed to the side of a gondola that sticks out into the aisle ) and the price channel (the thin strip where the prices of items are shown).  I could digress onto kick bands, bottle glorifiers, blister packs, exploding offers and many others too.

So many of the words on offer refer to situations which no longer occur in daily life but often Mark is able to find modern day equivalents (comparing for example, the prison tread-mill to the gym of today where, quoting from an 1824 tract on prison reform, “the labour . . . is irksome, dull, monotonous and disgusting to the last degree”).

We have all had the problem of dealing with people at social gatherings who tell long stories.  The ways of dealing with this has occupied the writers of etiquette guides for centuries and Mark has uncovered quite a few in The Horologicon.  For example, you could indulge in some kettle-pitchering by contradicting some trivial fact at the very start of the story which will divert the listeners on to discussing something entirely different.  The original speaker could recapture the conversation by indulging in asking a question then answering it himself (anthyrpophora) thereby preventing any further attempts to interrupt him (only men of course would use a conversation in this way as sort of sparring match! ).

In listing some of Mark’s words I’m failing to get across the humour and story-telling which fills the pages of his book. This is far removed from being a dictionary – there is an index at the back but I think it will remain unused because most of the words in The Horologicon area not those you’d meet in everyday life.  Its interesting to see however the long list of sources Mark discovered at the British Library and other places in researching his book.

Mark however isn’t so much interested in providing definitions of the words so much as helping you find new ones.  As he said in an interview, “whether you’re lying in bed before dawn suffering from uhtceare, duffifying the bottle of shampoo, eating breakfast like an aristologist, or driving to work down jumblegut lane, there’s always a word; and I wanted to make them available”.

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8 thoughts on “Review: The Horologicon – Mark Forsyth

    • Hi Parrish – I know their Cumberland Ale – but not encountered Snecklifter before. Its a nice site isn’t it – didn’t know you had to be of drinking age to be able to enter such sites though! Whatever next?


  1. I’m enjoying this book as I got a copy signed recently when Mark Forsyth visited our town. It was the second leg of his tour, and apparently he was really nervous, but sounded anything but, and was very entertaining indeed. Would recommend him as an author to see if he’s coming your way.


    • Thanks for that Annabel. I’m sure he’s a good chap to meet – I follow his blog and have corresponded with him. I got the book from Amazon Vine


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