Review: The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth

EtymologiconLike many people I am mildly interested in where words come from and I’ve occasionally read and reviewed books like David Crystal’s By Hook or By Crook which looks at where English place-names come from. Unless books like these are skilfully written they can quickly become tedious and its usually best to get this sort of information in small chunks – for example, Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words is a great online resource for occasional browsing.

Mark Forsyth publishes the Inky Fool blog in which he looks at the derivation of words, but links one to another in a humorous ramble through the English language. Mark is one of those lucky bloggers whose blog has now become a book, The Etymologicon,  and I have to say, it makes for a very good read which I’ve been dipping into over the last week.

Its probably better to illustrate Mark’s methods with an example than to describe them so here’s an article headed A Game of Chicken:

Gambling in medieval France was a simple business. All you needed were some friends, a pot, and a chicken. In fact, you didn’t need friends – you could do this with your enemies – but the pot and the chicken were essential.

 

First, each person puts an equal amount of money in the pot. Nobody should on any account make a joke about a poultry sum. Shoo the chicken away to a reasonable distance. What’s a reasonable distance? About a stone’s throw.

Next, pick up a stone. Now, you all take turns hurling stones at that poor bird, which will squawk and flap and run about. The first person to hit the chicken wins all the money in the pot. You then agree never to mention any of this to an animal rights campaigner.

That’s how the French played a game of chicken. The French, though, being French, called it a game of poule, which is French for chicken. And the chap who had won all the money had therefore won the jeu de poule.

The term got transferred to other things. At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table came to be known as the poule. English gamblers picked the term up and brought it back with them in the seventeenth century. They changed the spelling to pool, but they still had a pool of money in the middle  of the table.

We read on to learn the forward connections to the game of pool and then to pooling money, and resources and then onto typing pools and car pools and ends with pointing gout that we have all become part of the gene pool “which, etymologically, means that we are all little bits of chicken”.

I was surprised how in order to get his connections Mark has to link words from all the European languages.  I’d heard before that most of our languages spring from a root called Proto Indo European but it never struck me how much of the English language is derived from this source.

This is a nicely produced book which would be a perfect Christmas gift for anyone who might be interested in where our words come from.

Incidentally, Mark is appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends programme tomorrow (Saturday 3 December 2011)

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