Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon

What would you do if you had a burning passion for a subject that the wider world – in its infinite wisdom – regarded as irredeemably boring, utterly unworthy of time and attention, let alone expense? If you happen to live in the Internet age, you might start a blog (ahem), and that’s exactly what Mark Forsyth did. In 2009, ten years after completing an English degree at Oxford University, Mark began the Inky Fool blog, dedicated to words: their origins, their meanings, their history. It’s an unlikely subject for a popular blog, but Mark writes with such humour and insight that some 4,000 visitors flocked to his site each week for their etymological fix. A publishing house, taking notice of his website’s traffic, took a chance on him, and three years after the blog went online, The Etymologicon was published to widespread acclaim and commercial success.

This, of course, begs the question: how has Mark managed to market etymology, that notoriously fusty of disciplines? After all, the Oxford English Dictionary has been around for some time, yet draws interest only from a select few. The answer is that, unlike the vast majority of etymologists (according to my admittedly prejudiced guesswork), Mark Forsyth possesses a sense of humour, and he sets about enlightening us about the history of our language with mischievous delight. For example, one of the earliest chapters is titled “The old And New Testicle,” from which we get etymological gems like this:

The Testaments of the Bible testify to God’s truth. This is because the Latin for witness was testis. From that one root, testis, English has inherited protest (bear witness for), detest (bear witness against), contest (bear witness competitively), and testicle. What are testicles doing there? They are testifying to a man’s virility. Do you want to prove that you’re a real man? Well, your testicles will testify in your favour.

Not exactly the language lesson you would expect from Oxford or Cambridge, or the famed English public school system. But like the best teachers, Forsyth tricks his readers into learning in spite of themselves, using his wit to tell historical anecdotes, trace the history of words, and praise some of the most inventive wordsmiths in history, from Shakespeare and Milton to Shelley. Ever wonder where the word “bikini” came from, for example? From Bikini Island, where a nuclear bomb was once tested, because the creator of the bikini believed it would set off “an explosion of lust” in men. Want a more highbrow example? Consider our magical words “hocus pocus”:

In the court of the Protestant King James I, there was a clown who used to perform comical magic tricks, during which he would intone the cod-magical words: Hocus Pocus: Indeed, the clown called himself His Majesty’s Most Excellent Hocus Pocus, and the phrase caught on. Where did it come from?

From the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation, it turns out, which was always a particularly difficult belief to swallow (pardon the pun) for believers everywhere. As the priest would place the wafer – the literal body of Christ – in your mouth, he would intone the words Hoc est corpus meum, “this is my body,” and Hocus Pocus is merely a corruption of that Latin phrasing.

Forsyth’s surprise bestseller delights and instructs, and has likely introduced a new generation of readers to the rich history of the English language. In other words, he has performed a public service.