The Etymologicon


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author: Mark Forsyth
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2020-08-08
    • Tags: #nonfiction #linguistics #language #humor
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★★★

Word Trivia: Comedy Edition


The Etymologicon is a whistlestop tour of word history, linking everything from codpieces to how the tank got its name and disappearing Celts. It's entertaining journey through word trivia whose main issue is cramming in so much in so little space.

The Book Itself

Love the idea of a chain of articles, following on from one mention to the next and seeing how many links can be strung in the chain. The end spoiler linking back to the very beginning /spoiler is a particularly nice touch.

However, it can feel like a firehouse of trivia, especially at the start. Most chapters pack in multiple words and by the time you include their history, related tidbits, and humorous commentary, all while linking to the next word in the chain, the pace can become breathless and it's difficult to soak it all in. I admit to remembering very little of the actual facts beyond those I highlighted for further research later. Probably better suited as a bite sized articles than a book (as I think it was originally written).

The writing does not help this. It wavers between hilarious and grating, depending on the chapter (perhaps, again, because so much is crammed into such a small space). By the second half I was more acclimatized to it and enjoyed the ride far more than the first half.

The pace can also a boon as the book never gets bogged down, despite covering an impressive range of words and history. It's ideal to consume in short chunks when you want to scratch that brain itch or some trivia to file away for later.

Favourite topics

  • Braggarts is literally one who shows off his codpiece.
  • How the tank got its name.
  • The connection between sheep, the origin of the printing press, and the size of your e-reader.
  • The mystery of the etymological genocide of the Celtic language.
  • Assassin origins
  • The sheer number of names, from products to countries, that spring from fiction.

Topics to Pursue

  • History of submarine and torpedo
  • Text & textile relations
  • Einstein-Rosen Bridge, a theoretical connection between two parts of space-time implied, if not necessitated, by the Theory of Relativity.
  • So many places and items named after fiction: California, Starbucks, Bluetooth --> The power of #storytelling

[[!Further Reading]]


  • =="Sausages are stuffed with pork and peril. They don’t usually kill you, but they can."==
  • "Carl Jung was Freud’s protégé. Then one day Carl had a dream that wasn’t about sex. He hesitated before telling Freud something quite that embarrassing. ==Confessing to a psychoanalyst that you’ve had an innocent dream is rather like confessing to your grandmother that you’ve had a dirty one.=="
  • =="John Harington once wrote: Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it Treason."==
  • "According to legend (the beautiful elder sister of truth),"
  • "Names are not earned, they are given. Often the givers don’t know what they’re doing."
  • "Some fragments of the poem survive, which is a pity."
  • "When the world changes, language changes."
  • =="You can follow the history of the English-speaking world by watching the new words flow by."==
  • "...fiction is only fact minus time."
  • =="...fiction usually beats fact to the punch."==


  • "Being a scientist, he of course dressed this up in Greek, and the Greek for water producer is hydro-gen. The bit of air that made things acidic he decided to call the acid-maker or oxy-gen, and the one that produced nitre then got called nitro-gen. (Argon, the other major gas in air, wasn’t known about at the time, because it’s an inert gas and doesn’t produce anything at all. That’s why it’s called argon. Argon is Greek for lazy.)"
  • "Most of the productive and reproductive things in the world have gen hidden somewhere in their names."
  • "Nobody knows how oaths were sworn in the ancient world, but many scholars believe that people didn’t put their hands on their hearts or their thighs, but on the testicles of the man to whom they were swearing, which would make the connection between testis and testes rather more direct."
  • "You see, the Aztecs noticed the avocado’s shape and decided that it resembled nothing so much as a big, green bollock. So they called it an ahuakatl, their word for testicle. When the Spanish arrived they misheard this slightly and called it aguacate, and the English changed this slightly to avocado."
  • =="...braggarts (literally one who shows off his codpiece)."==
  • =="Of course, the Powhatan tribe didn’t know they lived in Virginia. They thought they lived in Tenakomakah, and so the English thoughtfully came with guns to explain their mistake."==
  • "Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental and cooking."
  • =="Our word sky comes from the Viking word for cloud, but in England there’s simply no difference between the two concepts, and so the word changed its meaning because of the awful weather."==
  • =="Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now. It’s just that after a thousand years of people saying ‘I’ll do that soon’, soon has ended up meaning what it does today."==
  • "==Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was a sausage-maker who disposed of the body.== In nineteenth-century America, the belief that sausages were usually made out of dog meat was so widespread that they started to be called hotdogs,"
  • "After a few hundred years the Kurgans in northern India wouldn’t have been able to make out what their cousins in Italy were saying. If you want to see this process in action today, visit Glasgow."
  • "Some bread names are even stranger. Ciabatta is the Italian for slipper, matzoh means sucked out, and Pumpernickel means Devil-fart."
  • =="Quintilian says that after you have chosen your words you must weave them together into a fabric – in textu iungantur – until you have a fine and delicate text[ure[ile]] or textum tenue atque rasum."== --> Text as textile #researchTopic
  • "We weave stories together and embroider them and try never to lose the thread of the story."
  • "When Caxton built his printing press in the fifteenth century, he set it up to use sheepskin and not paper. When paper was finally introduced it was manufactured to fit the existing printing presses, and that’s the reason that both the text you’re reading and the book that contains it are dependent upon sheep. Of course, ==you may be reading this on your e-book reader, but as those have been designed to mimic the size of normal books, you’re still at the mercy of the sheep.==" #design
  • "The first mistake that must be wiped away is that Thomas Crapper (1836–1910) was the inventor of the lavatory. He wasn’t. The first flushing lavatory was invented by the Elizabethan poet Sir John Harington." "Crapper didn’t invent it, but he spread the word."
  • "So many Slavs were defeated and oppressed that the word Slav itself became interchangeable with forced labourer, and that’s where we got the word slave."
  • "When Charles Babbage invented the precursor of the modern computer he called it an Analytical Engine,"
  • "Monty Python is, for reasons best known to nobody, rather popular with computer programmers. There’s even a programming language called Python, based on their sketches."
  • "it made you feel great. Like a hero. So the marketing chaps decided to call their new product heroin. And guess what? It did sell. ==Heroin remained a Bayer trademark until the First World War; but the ‘non-addictive’ part turned out to be a little misguided.=="
  • "Without De Quincey we would have no subconscious, no entourages, no incubators, no interconnections"
  • "‘To Anacreon in Heav’n’ was a good song with a very catchy tune" --> ==Star Spangled Banner uses the tune from an old drinking song.==
  • "Hitler wouldn’t have called himself a Nazi. Indeed, he became quite offended when anyone did suggest he was a Nazi. He would have considered himself a National Socialist. Nazi is, and always has been, an insult." --> Nazi was slang for Bavarian hick
  • "==Parrots are very important linguistically because they preserve the words of the dead.== There was an explorer at the beginning of the nineteenth century called Alexander von Humboldt. He was in Venezuela and found an old parrot that still repeated words from the language of the Ature tribe."
  • =="The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest work of reference ever written, and it’s largely the result of a Scotsman who left school at fourteen, and a criminally insane American."==
  • "Human beings count in tens. [...] The reason we do this is that we have five fingers on each hand,"
  • "Counting on your fingers is such a natural thing to do that the word digit, which originally just meant finger, now means number as well. This also means that when information is stored in the form of numbers it becomes digital."
  • "So, if you work from the place-name evidence you get a third and very odd picture of a country filled with settlements of Anglo-Saxons and Celts living side by side, but never talking. That would mean that they weren’t trading, weren’t marrying, weren’t doing anything at all except naming each other’s settlements, presumably as places to avoid."
  • =="The Vikings were horrid people to whom history has, for some strange reason, been very indulgent."==
  • "If something is true, it’s the truth. If you rue your actions, you feel ruth. If you don’t rue your actions, you feel no ruth and that makes you ruthless"
  • =="the fearsome crocodile, whose name comes from the Greek kroke-drilos, which means pebble-worm."==
  • "Calculus is a formidable word that loses some of its grandeur when you realise that a calculus is just a little pebble, because the Romans did their maths by counting up stones."
  • "People didn’t used to write 1 + 1, they would write the sentence I et I, which is Latin for one and one. To make the plus sign, all they did was drop the e in et"
  • =="But nothing has ever been as new as the French Revolution, which was essentially a mob of new ideas armed with pitchforks and intent on murder. Every new event, every new idea, had to be rendered for the English-speaking world in new words that were being imported from the French."==
  • "There was no sudden break, but little by little their language changed, until nobody in Rome could understand the great Roman authors any more, unless they had studied Latin at school. Slowly, people had to start distinguishing the old Latin from the language that people were speaking on the streets of Rome, which came to be known as Romanicus."
  • "The explorers decided to name it [California] after the magical land of ferocious (and attractive) women who had appeared in Montalvo’s chivalric fantasy."
  • "Diogenes was, by any standards, an odd chap. He lived in a barrel in the marketplace in Athens and used to carry a lamp about in broad daylight, explaining that he was trying to find an honest man."
  • =="...the answer may come as a shock to cyberpunks, because cyber means controlled – indeed, it comes from the same root as governed."==
  • "Anyone who has ever taken out a mortgage will be unsurprised to learn that it is, literally, a death-pledge. However, it’s the sort of thing you would only usually notice if you were taking out a mortgage on a mortuary. Mort is death, and mortal man has nothing else waiting for him. Nothing is certain in this life except death and mortgages."
  • "A wage was, originally, a pledge or deposit. Wage is simply a different way of pronouncing the gage in mortgage and engagement"
  • "Buckskins soon became the standard unit of barter in North America, and a standard unit of barter is, in effect, money. So it was buckskins, or bucks for short, that were used for trade."
  • "‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”’ Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’ ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected. ==‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’=="
  • ==Slogan = a Celtic war cry==
  • Thesaurus = Treasure chest

Scrapbook Concepts

  • "The execution went badly. They tried to burn him alive, but the fire went out. They threw him into molten lead but it turned out to be cold. They lashed a stone to him and chucked him into the sea, but the stone floated. They threw him to wild beasts, which were tamed. They tried to hang him and the rope broke. They tried to chop his head off but the sword bent and he forgave the executioner. This last kindness was what earned the doctor the name Pantaleon, which means All-Compassionate." #characters
  • Aztecs: Itzpapalotl, goddess of the Obsidian Butterfly: a soul encased in soul. Can only be freed by Tezcatlipoca. #creatures
  • Thomas Crapper & Co., and designed his own line of thrones. #characters #fragments
  • Morpheus, god of dreams. Son of Sleep, brother of Fantasy #creatures
  • Cave near the underworld where Morpheus makes dreams and hangs them on withered elm until they're ready to use #locations
  • "In alchemy (there’s the Arabic the again) every chemical was thought to contain vital spirits, little fairies who lived in the substance and made it do funny things." #creatures #magic
  • "Come quickly, I am tasting the stars" (invention of champagne)
  • The Never Never #locations
  • Parrot which has preserved the language of a dead tribe. #creatures
  • "King Harald had blue teeth. Or perhaps he had black teeth. Nobody’s quite sure, as the meaning of blau has changed over the years." #characters
  • A Shell Merchant #characters
  • Man (Verheyen) who carries his preserved leg with him at all times. Starts writing letters to it #characters
  • Two settlements of different people who live side by side but never talk/trade/etc or do anything except name each other's land as places to avoid. #setting
  • the Red Land with White Teeth #locations
  • Diogenes was, by any standards, an odd chap. He lived in a barrel in the marketplace in Athens and used to carry a lamp about in broad daylight, explaining that he was trying to find an honest man. #characters
  • The moon at the ford of blood #locations = Cindy Crawford name meaning
  • He who listens among the crows
  • Earth pig (Aardvark) #creatures