I bet you didn’t know that the word “Wikipedia” actually means “fast child”. And that the towns of Pendle Hill in Lancashire and Bredon Hill in Worcestershire both have names that mean “hill hill hill”. No, neither did I until I bought Mark Forsyth’s book “The Etymologicon” (which, incidentally, means “a manual for one who studies the history, and change in form or meaning, of words”).
Mark writes a fascinating blog about etymology called The Inky Fool, and you can find links to the book on his blog. If, like me, you have a fascination with where words come from, how their meanings change over time, and how they relate to each other (and, in my case, how you can even make up your own new ones) then you really do need to buy a copy of this book.
The subtitle is “A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language”, and it certainly seems like it does both the hidden connections bit (which must have required an immense amount of research) and the circularity (especially as the final paragraph ends with “continued on page 1”).
To give you a flavor of the style and content, I’m sure Mark won’t mind me quoting some extracts from the very start, where he discusses what a book actually is. And, of course, due to the circular nature of the connections, the very end of the book does the same to complete the iteration:
“This is a book. The glorious insanities of the English language mean that you can do all sorts of odd and demeaning things to a book. You can cook it. You can bring a criminal to it, or, if the criminal refuses to be brought you can throw it at him.”
From here, the topics move swiftly to “bookmakers” (who used to make books, but now take bets), to “a turn-up for the books” (which is really about bookmakers and not about books at all), to throwing stones at chickens in France.
Later, there’s a section on frequentative suffixes that explains how people get to be gruntled (by grunting very often) before they can be disgruntled, one that discusses where the Cybermen came from (no, it wasn’t Earth’s twin planet Mondas), and one about how Bluetooth connectivity wouldn’t have been called Bluetooth if the guy who invented it hadn’t been reading about Vikings at the time.
And, most amazing of all, an explanation of why Winston Churchill’s demands for wartime secrecy meant that tanks (the big iron things with tracks underneath and a gun on the front) didn’t end up being called “carriers”, or even “landships”.
Meanwhile, the book will also tell you what the thing that used to be a “taximeter cabriolet” actually is today, and how the Von Trapp family were cruelly deceived because “do” is not a deer, a female deer, and “re” is not a drop of golden sun.
But if you want to know why Wikipedophiles are taking advantage of fast children, and why some people living in Lancashire and Yorkshire can’t think of better names for their hills, you’ll just have to buy a copy of the book…