The man with a word for everything …

An evening with Mark Forsyth

One of the surprise bestsellers last Christmas, thanks to being serialised on BBC Radio 4, was a little book all about etymology – The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth.  It is all about the strange connections between words and phrases through finding where they come from, so you can link “church organs to organised crime” and “brackets to codpieces”.

Forsyth is obviously hoping for a repeat performance from his new book, which will also be a Radio 4 Book of the Week in December.  The Horologicon celebrates all the oddest words in the English language, and as a device for introducing them to us, Forsyth has contrived them into a wander through the day according to which hour they may be of most use in.  There are words for ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying’ – uhtceare (Oot-key-are-a) from the Old English; to gongoozle – ‘to stare at a canal and do nothing’; and wamblecropt – to be ‘overcome by indigestion’.

Both books are great fun to dip into, but as much fun was hearing Forsyth talk about them as I did last night at Abingdon’s historic Roysse Room. He obviously has a great passion for language, and is rather geeky about it – in a good way I hasten to add, but he was also extremely funny to listen to.

His well-polished talk’s theme was essentially that “there are really good reasons for reading dictionaries apart from social inadequacy.”, he said.

Firstly – Etymology. Forsyth told us all about how film buffs are related to buffaloes – as buffalo (ox) leather was used to polish / buff things and it’s pale like skin – hence in the buff.  It’s also very strong, and the New York fire brigade uniforms used to be made of it, and the firemen were known as buffs – and had a following who used to turn up to see “a good conflagration” and these enthusiasts became known as the buffs instead, and the word was adopted to mean any sort of knowledgeable fan.

Another reason for reading dictionaries is to rediscover lost words – like those I already highlighted above. And finally – to give you an unbiased glimpse into the compiler and their subject’s lives.  Here, Forsyth told us how he managed to track down, in a bookshop in Cornwall, a rare copy of Cab Calloway’s autobiography which had as an appendix his Hepster’s dictionary: The language of jive – Calloway is most famous for performing Minnie the Moocher. Forsyth is also a fan of old farming dictionaries full of obsolete terms for fungal diseases of cows etc.

Before the book signing, it was over to the audience for questions – who did their best to catch him out with obscure dialect words. I bet this happens all the time, but Forsyth was quite the gentleman letting them have their moments, whilst mentally noting them down for future reference I’d wager.

Forsyth’s blog The Inky Fool is worth a visit for more etymological musings and to get a flavour of his books, which I’d heartily recommend as good wordy fun for Christmas!

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I was given/bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language


0 thoughts on “The man with a word for everything …

  1. david73277 says:

    Just the sort of author who you would expect to be wearing a cravat, as your photo shows he does – though perhaps not when getting the groceries in.

    • gaskella says:

      Actually he was in mufti last night with no cravat or wesket, going for the posh preppy look, (that’s his author blurb photo, the one I took wasn’t any good).

  2. Christine Harding says:

    I remember listening to The Etymologicon on Radio 4, and found it fascinating. I rather like gongoozle… I stop and gaze at the canal every time I walk over the bridge on my way in to town – now I know there is a proper word for this activity it makes it seem like a proper thing to do!

  3. Alex says:

    We are proud to boast that here in Birmingham we have more canals than they do in Venice so I do a lot of gongoozling, especially when I walk into town from the University along the canal path. I listened to the broadcasts last year with much delight and will look forward to the new book equally.

    • gaskella says:

      Christine, Alex – there’s something about gazing into water isn’t there? We have the river Thames flowing on the south side of Abingdon, but I don’t pass by that way often enough to stop and stare and indulge in a bit of gongoozling..

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