Mark Forsyth’s Etymologicon is exactly the kind of smart funny distraction I needed after wading through the romance novel box set from hell. I’ve read this before, and it’s followup, but there’s so very much packed into them, that I can and probably will read them a dozen more times.
This is effectively the old tv show Connections, but about etymology, written in that ironic and oh so very sarcastic British style that people like Stephen Fry are such masters of. And while that sounds terribly dry, and indeed, you probably wouldn’t read this from end to end, it is in fact a lot of fun. It’s kind of like reading an etymologically focussed QI episode, and of course since it’s been out a few years, the odd fact enclosed has been challenged, or even overturned, but most of it is well researched.
Mostly though, it just makes me laugh, particularly when it's being insulting. So here's a few of my favourite snippets.
Skelton wrote an attack on Cardinal Wolsey called ‘Speke, Parrot’. Some fragments of the poem survive, which is a pity.
Moby-Dick wasn't a very popular novel at first. Most people, especially the British, couldn’t make head or tail of it, though this was largely because the British edition was missing the last chapter.
Of course, modern biologists scoff at Ovid’s story and dismiss it purely on the basis that it isn’t true. However, poetry is much more important than truth, and, if you don’t believe that, try using the two methods to get laid.
There are only two places where worms have turned and maintained some of their former greatness. One is a wormhole , which used to mean exactly what you might expect until 1957 when the word was hijacked by the Einstein - Rosen Bridge, a theoretical connection between two parts of space - time implied, if not necessitated, by the Theory of Relativity.
And although it's pushing it lengthwise as a quote this is one of my favourite passages in a non-fiction book ever: Forsyth’s small rant on the failings of Shakespeare-as-geographer.
Shakespeare almost certainly didn’t know that Bohemia had ever been anything other than landlocked. Shakespeare didn’t give a damn about geography. In The Tempest , Prospero is abducted from his palace in Milan and bundled down to the docks under cover of darkness. Seventy - four miles overnight is a good bit of bundling in the days before the Ferrari. Not that that bothered the Bard. He had people sailing from Verona and a sail - maker working in Bergamo, an Italian town that’s over a hundred miles from the nearest port. Writers these days devote their time to research, Shakespeare devoted his to writing. He set a whole play in Venice, apparently unaware that there were any canals there; at least he never mentions any, and whenever the city pops up he refers to it as a land , even though it’s in the sea.
Shakespeare seems never to have consulted a map, and anybody who feels too sniffy about that can, like Cleopatra, go and hang themselves from the top of the pyramids. After all, fiction is only fact minus time. If the polar ice caps keep melting the sea will, eventually, come to Verona, to Milan and finally to Bergamo. Then the Sun will expand and the Earth, in a few billion years’ time, will be a parched and burning rock, and the charred bones of Shakespeare, resting in their grave, will be vindicated because all the canals in Venice will be dry.