Book Review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

TL;DR – How words in the English language came to mean what they mean sounds like a topic best suited for language academics, but Mark Forsyth delivers fascinating insights into how words came to be and does so in hilarious fashion.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Ever wonder what John the Baptist and the Sound of Music have in common?

Turkeys were first discovered in the magnolia forests of the Americas, yet they did not originate from the country, Turkey, so why are they called that?

Why was the horrible beheading device known as the guillotine named after Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who was actually against the death penalty?

If these questions circle your head like a bunch of vultures, and you toss and turn at night because you desperately seek answers to these mysteries, then (apart from the need to perhaps re-examine your life) look no further then The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth.

Review

Mark Forsyth is the brilliant author of The Elements of Eloquence (a must-have book for any writer’s toolkit). You can check out my review of The Elements of Eloquence on my book reviews page. While both that book and The Etymologicon examines the English language, this one is quite a different read.

The Etymologicon is more about words that have come into existence that have origins that are often confused, funny and intriguing. Forsyth manages to actually make you interested in the words that we use and take for granted every day.

Of course, there are words that he explores that we don’t use in every day life but he dives in any way because it leads to results that will have you in awe (or perhaps because I’m a writer I’m left in awe and everyone else will just shake their heads in dismay).

One of the best examples of this is the word ‘buffalo’. Forsyth explains how buffalo came to mean buff (as in to ‘polish’, along with to be an ‘enthusiast’ like a music ‘buff’ or movie ‘buff’, and also the link with the word ‘to bully’). He then shows the connection of this word to New York firefighters and then to the city of Buffalo.

But wait there’s more…

Forsyth then writes the following sentence: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.

Believe it or not, this is the longest grammatically correct sentence in the English language that uses only one word. This is known as a antanaclasis, which means that it keeps using the same word in different senses. One can translate the aforementioned ‘buffalo’ sentence into:

Buffalo bison [whom] Buffalo bison bully [then] bully Buffalo bison.

You think that would be enough right? But Forsyth can’t help showing off. The man decides to go into other languages like Chinese, which is a tonally inflected language (i.e. you can change the meaning of a word in Chinese by changing its tone slightly – no wonder it is so difficult to learn!)

So if you think the buffalo antanaclasis is impressive, Forsyth reveals what a Chinese-American linguist did by creating a poem that in Westernised script comes out as:

Shishi shishi Shi Shi, shi shi, shi shi shi shi

Shi shishi shi shi shi shi…

This goes on for ten more lines of varying length all with the word ‘shi’ in it. Thankfully, the translation is given which talks about a poet named ‘Shi’ who lives in a stone den, is hungry, wishes to eat ten lions, goes to market to buy ten lions, seeing the ten lions he shoots them with arrows, who then takes them back to his den only to discover the ten lions are actually ten stone lions.

Yeah, makes as much sense as the untranslated version… still I laughed… somewhat hysterically.

4 out of 5.

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