By Mark Forsyth
|Value for money||8/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||8/10|
A hilarious ramble through the undergrowth of the English language
If you’re a closet etymologist or casual linguicist, like me, then this is the book for you. Mark Forsyth leads a merry ramble through the tangled roots of the English language, identifying verbal histories and connections which are sometimes quite mind-boggling.
A sequence of short chapters each explores a topic, usually identifying a stream of words stemming from a common source, whether that be a Greek, Latin or proto-Indo-European root, a language which has been partially adopted into the English tapestry, or a fount of linguistic innovation such as the writings of Milton. In many cases he threads a route through time, geography and lexical space to words which have dramatically different or even opposite meanings to their antecedents.
While each chapter can be read alone, Forsyth cunningly links them together, with each feeding the next, and the last linking back to the first like Ouroboros swallowing its tail.
The writing is always amusing, and occasionally funny enough to stimulate a laugh out loud. Forsyth reserves particular cruelty for poets, and other specialists in the use and abuse of words. My favourite quote: “[we] should devote a chapter to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. So we won’t.” Myles Coverdale, editor of an early English Bible, is characterised by “[he] didn’t let the tiny detail that he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew get in his way. This is the kind of can-do attitude that is sadly lacking in modern biblical scholarship.”
This isn’t a learned book, and its structure and style preclude any deep exploration of a particular topic. But it will convey a broad appreciation of the mixing of the rich Jambalaya which is the English language, and will certainly pique your interest at understanding where words come from, as well as their immediate meaning.