"If there's one thing that etymology proves
conclusively, it's that the world is a wretched place," Mark Forsyth cheerfully
informs us in his bestselling language guide The
out in a bright yellow paperback edition this month.
Marrying cheek and melancholy as only the British can (full disclosure
for new readers: I'm half-English and addicted to Beyond the Fringe), Forsyth
walks us through the workings of his frenetically interesting mind while
unpeeling the layers of history behind common words and phrases. He
traipses seamlessly from Pantheon to pandemonium,
bunkum to bunk beds, pausing along the way to explain how fool's finger and leech finger evolved into their much less colorful modern
counterparts, middle finger and ring finger. More's the pity.
I've read more books about words and language than the
average bear, and sometimes (spoiler alert for future columns) they turn out
dry and impenetrable. The Etymologicon
is the opposite in all the best ways"”easy to follow, free of jargon and
footnotes, and uproariously funny"”and I had trouble putting it down, even as
Mr. Forsyth overstuffed my brain with obscure knowledge.
When a chapter on heroin follows a chapter on SPAM and the
transition seems perfectly logical, you know you're in expert hands.
The consequences of both words may be wretched, but you'll keep reading all the