by Mark Forsyth
Penguin Books Canada, 2011
Don’t think this is a dry book written by a crusty, judgmental Englishman. English, he is, but crusty and judgmental? Most definitely not.
Mark Forsyth takes us on a highly entertaining circular stroll through the history of our ever-evolving language. He makes surprising connections—the Latin for witness is testis from which we get both testicles and the Old Testament—and he sets aright some unfortunate changes in meaning. Angry protesters spouting angry opposition against an event or activity might feel better if they remember that protest means to bear witness for something.
“Every weakness of human nature comes out in the history of etymology.”
We see our frailties and failings reflected in our language. Soon was the Anglo-Saxon word for now; our procrastination led to the erosion of that meaning. The Roman word probabilis meant something could be proved by experiment, but people tend to be more certain of things than they should be. As Forsyth points out, “. . . absolutely any sane Roman would tell you that it was probabilis that the Sun went round the Earth.” By the time probably made its way to English, “. . . it was already a poor, exhausted word whose best days were behind it, and only meant likely.”
From protest, soon and probably, we can see that we are complaining procrastinators who obstinately believe in shaky truths.
Forsyth is funny too, in the subtle British way.
“The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.”
He tells us why black can mean white and white can mean black, and why down sometimes means up. He reassures us that being an idiot might not be as bad a thing as we thought. And, he lets us in on the secret of what John the Baptist and The Sound of Music have in common.
If you read the book, you will find out all that, and more. And the next time you enjoy a cappuccino in Starbucks, you can ponder both Moby Dick and barefoot monks, and it will all make sense to you.
Read more at the Inky Fool blog: http://blog.inkyfool.com/