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. Continue reading

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)

Review: The Possessed – Elif Batuman

The e PossessedElif Batuman’s book of essays, The Possessed, loosely based on the joys of reading classic Russian literature, turns out to be a bit of a hodge-podge of travel-writing, literary criticism and a personal reading history, enlivened by a butterfly mind that flutters from one subject to another without really landing for too long on any particular theme.

This gives the book a distinct lack of unity – sure, some of it is clever, but at other times, this reader at least thought, yes, but this isn’t really why I came here.  The book is subtitled “Adventures with Russian Books and the People who Read Them”, and in a loose way, I suppose that’s fair enough, but I expected more unity of purpose, with more material written specifically for this book rather than a a collection of previously published lectures and articles (although occasionally enhanced for this volume).

I’ve no problem with bringing together collections of previously published material, but I do think the publishers should make this clear on the cover because in this case, I could find quite a bit of the book online and find out whether it was something I wanted to read.  As it is, the book is very selective in its appraisal of Russian books and the people who read them and hardly serves the purpose of its subtitle at all.

I wanted more of what it says on the tin – a book about reading Russian literature, something more comprehensive, with a bit of planning behind it. I got instead large chunks about Batuman’s intellectual and academic development including tortuous stories of how she ended up learning the Uzbek language, or how she moved from one course to another while at college – or even tales about her various boyfriends (an uninspiring bunch to say the least!).  Dare I say, that some of it seemed remarkably self-congratulatory – a sort of “look how clever I am”, but maybe that’s my English perceptions getting in the way – American reviewers seem not to have picked up on this at all.

Continue reading

Review: The Prodigal Tongue – Mark Abley

In The Prodigal Tongue, Mark Abley has provided us with a tour of the state of the English language in Britain and around the world.  His main conclusion seems to be that although “English” is the new Esperanto, a world language spoken by people on every continent, its not so much standard English that predominates so much as “Englishes”.  These are widely varying tongues, with a core of what we know as English, but much adapted to local circumstances, infiltrated by words from many other languages, and not even retaining the original meanings of a large number of words.  Speakers of Western English may be very surprised to find how little they understand when they converse with an “English speaker” in say Japan, Malaya or the Philippines.

Abley points out that English is immensely adaptable.  It continually absorbs new words, transmutes the meaning of existing words and moreover, other countries use it to fill the gaps in their own languages.  The Finnish do not have a word for “please” but now use ours, and have dropped their own word (anteeksi) in favour of “sorry”.  Slovakian teenager boys address their girl-friends as beib (babe) or hany (honey).  The Austrian magazine “News” headlines “Das Grosse Interview” and Austrian cellphones offer “Downloaden”.  Numerous similar examples are quoted and it is difficult to see how any language purist of another tongue can suggest any way in which this “Englishisation” can be stopped.  We are going to find English all over the world, particularly in the worlds of business, entertainment or technology.

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Review: By Hook or by Crook – David Crystal

With By Hook or By Crook David Crystal has provided us with an entertaining travelogue of selected part of (mostly) England and Wales. The reader accompanies Crystal as he meanders around various small towns (Haye on Wye, Stratford on Avon etc), finding many interesting places along the way and recounting many tales and anecdotes about place names and other linguistic curiosities. Crystal makes an amusing travel companion, perhaps with similarities to Michael Palin or Richard Bryson, and one gets the impression of a man with a fund of stories who would be a useful talking guide-book on any possible journey around Britain.

Although I enjoyed reading this book, it is difficult to see what happened to the Sebald inspiration claimed by the author. Sebald writes meditative, reflective books which lead the reader into contemplating the big issues of life and death – the actual locations and histories he recounts being almost incidental to the inner state of mind aroused along the way. This book on the other hand is an energetic tour through linguistic highways and byways, with fact after fact piled on in an almost random fashion, making it difficult to see the whole picture. By Hook or By Crook is definitely an entertaining read, but as with so many books about the origins of the English (or any other) language, unless one has a formidable memory for random facts, little of it will remain when the final page has been read. While the derivation of “Lichfield” for example is undoubtedly of passing interest, a week after reading the book I can recall little of it, nor can I quite see why I needed to know in the first place.

I read this book on holiday and it was perfect for picking up and putting down again a few minutes later. It does not demand too much in the way of concentration and would make an excellent gift for anyone with an interest in words and their meanings.