Monday, 13 January 2014

The Etymologicon is a phenomenally, earth-shatteringly entertaining book about the origins of everyday words

The reason Flamenco music is so called is that the Spanish believed Gypsies came from Flemish Belgium (the Spanish word for Flemish is Flamenco). Dope is named after doop, a thick sauce the Dutch dipped bread into. Dog Days are so-called because our second-brightest star, Sirius, aka the Dog Star, used to be invisible between 24th July and 24th August, when it was in the sky at the same time as the Sun, and the ancient Greeks believed that the heat it added to the Sun’s made this the hottest part of the year...

I knew that the bikini was named after Bikini Atoll, where H-bomb tests were held, but I didn't know it was because the inventor thought the saucy little number would create a similar explosion in the pants of fellow Frenchmen (e.g. François Hollande, François Mitterand, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing etc. - not that their libidos seem to require any additional stimulation).

In ancient Greek, oxy meant sharp and moros meant dull (or foolish), so oxymoron means a sharp dullness – which is self-contradictory. The rolling stone that gathers no moss is a garden implement for flattening lawns – i.e. a kind of roller. I’m pretty sure I used to know that Britain comes from the ancient Greek word for tattooed people – Prittanoi – but I’d forgotten it.

These fascinating snippets – and hundreds of others - all come from Mark Forsyth’s book, The Etymologicon (available here), one of the books my son bought me for my birthday (thanks, lad). Genuinely unputdownable.

One particularly interesting theme of Forsyth’s wonderful book is the propensity of great English writers to invent new words. We all know about Shakespeare (who invented between 600 and 1200, according to which authority you consult) but I didn’t know that drug-fiend Thomas De Quincey gave us incubators, interconnections, intuit, reposition, phenomenally, earth-shatteringly and post-natal.

What a truly grollic bloke! (Yes, I know grollic doesn’t exist, but, you never know - it might catch on.)

Before dying at the age of 29, Shelley had invented spectral, anklet, heartless, bloodstain, expatriate, expressionless, interestingly, legionnaire, moonlit, sunlit, petty-minded, unattractive, undefeated, unfulfilling and white-hot (among many others).

As for John Milton, apart from Etymologicon, he also gave us… well, you’ll have to buy the book to find out. What a treat! 

Mark Forsyth has produced a book about lost words, The Horologicon, and his blog - The Inky Fool - can be found here.

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