By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Mark Forsyth
Narration by: Don Hagen
This is a wry story about the origin of English words. Though the title word of the book is rarely heard, it has been defined since the 17th century as a treatise on the derivation of words.
The ironic and amusing voice of Don Hagen magnifies the crisp and clever writing of its author, Mark Forsyth. After a first listen, one is tempted to listen again. The happenstance of word origins is sometimes funny, bizarre, and often serendipitous.
Forsyth reminds one of reports about Samuel Johnson (principal author of “A Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755). Both Forsyth and Johnson have an uncommon interest in word origins and show a sense of humor when talking about their interest.
Forsyth begins his book comically. He notes how carried away he becomes when asked about the origin of a word. Forsyth writes of a casual question asked by a random acquaintance about the origin of a word. The questioner loses interest in a stream-of-consciousness derivation of words offered. Finally, the random acquaintance asks Forsyth to stop talking.
From Shakespeare’s “…hoisted by a petard” to the origin of a flush toilet, Forsyth entertains his audience. Who knew that Shakespeare’s petard is associated with a silent fart? If the true meaning of small explosion does not raise one from a chair, the smell will.
Who knew that a flushing toilet is an invention of Alexander Cumming in 1775; not to become famous until Thomas Crapper starts mass producing toilets in the 19th century? However, Crapper has nothing to do with the origin of the word crap.
Another enlightening vignette is the number of words originated by John Milton. Some say Milton creates more new words than William Shakespeare. Forsyth notes words like pandemonium, lovelorn, unoriginal, enjoyable, sensuous, terrific, etc.–all come from Milton’s writings. Forsyth chooses pandemonium; follows it to its origin, and smoothly transitions to the origin of the words pan and then pants. One never knows exactly where they are going as Forsyth sifts through his Etymologicon.
This is a short story and a fascinating journey through the centuries. Meanings of words change through the course and tenor of times. Forsyth shows how words change with turns in history and quirks of nature; i.e. words, like quisling from Nazi sympathizer, Vidkun Quisling, or butterflies from the color of their poop.