Friday, April 13, 2012

The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth is a obsessive-compulsive English etymologist, and short of a house-guest who can't control his impulse to mop all my floors, this may well be my favourite variety of nut.  I knew I was going to adore this book right from the preface, in which Forsyth relates the incident of the man who, whilst nibbling on a biscuit, innocently asked the author if he knew the word's origin. He tried to flee when the stream of etymological knowledge passed from 'biscuit' through 'masochism' and into 'Kafkaesque', but there was no escape. How can there be, when one word always leads to another?
It was at this point that he made a dash for the door, but I was too quick for him. My blood was up and there was always something more to say. There always is, you know. There’s always an extra connection, another link that joins two words that most of mankind quite blithely believe to be separate, which is why that fellow didn’t escape until a couple of hours later when he managed to climb out of the window while I was drawing a diagram to explain what the name Philip has to do with a hippopotamus.
Escape?! I couldn't get enough. The Etymologicon was a few thousand pages too short for my liking, but I suppose the author's family or editor stepped in once again and imposed some sort of limit.

Mr. Forsyth is English, which has two implications: First, he must delve into all the other countless languages from which we have swiped words, and second, he sneers at the French.
From braca came the early French brague meaning trousers, and when they wanted a word for a codpiece they decided to call it a braguette or little trousers. This is not to be confused with baguette, meaning stick. In fact a Frenchman might brag that his baguette was too big for his braguette, but then Frenchmen will claim anything. They’re braggarts (literally one who shows off his codpiece).
In Malaysia, dealing with public agencies can often feel like trying to untangle a skein of yarn that the cats have jumbled, but I had no idea that sensation had an etymological root.
Wool gets everywhere in language. Muslim mystics are called Sufis because of the woollen, suf, garments that they wore. Burlesque dancers on the other hand are taking part in a nonsensical or trifling show named after the Latin burra meaning a tuft of wool. Burras were used as coverings for desks, and that gave us bureaus and then bureaucracies.
Forsyth credits the field of psychology with all its contributions to our language. Freud, Jung and their associates gave names to all our idiosyncrasies which their predecessors had simply termed 'madness' as they tossed us into the asylum. They began to label all of our various sexual proclivities, too.
Krafft-Ebing was born sixteen years before Dr Freud and 35 years before Jung. He was, essentially, the first doctor to start writing case histories of people whose sexual behaviour wasn’t entirely respectable. The book that resulted, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), was so scandalous that large chunks of it had to be written in Latin, in order to keep it out of the hands of the prurient public. The idea was that if you were clever enough to understand Latin, you couldn’t possibly be a pervert (something that nobody mentioned to Caligula).
Besides, I'm sure Europe's fishmongers and chimneysweeps and so on had plenty of their own vocabulary for such things. But hey, man, this is not a Eurocentric book. Forsyth pops across the Atlantic for a bit of American slang.
In the United States, before the Civil War had finally established the idea that slavery isn’t completely compatible with the Land of the Free, slave-owners used to call their slaves boy. The Battle of Gettysburg freed the slaves and produced a memorable address, but it didn’t, unfortunately, come with a socio-economic plan or a new language. Slave-owners weren’t allowed to own slaves any more, but they continued to be rather nasty to their ex-slaves and kept calling them boy in a significant sort of way that annoyed the hell out of the manumitted. All over America, infuriating white people would address black men with the words ‘Hey, boy’. And it grated. It really grated. That’s why, in the 1940s, black Americans started taking the fight the other way and greeting each other with the words ‘Hey, man’. The vocative was not inserted for the purposes of sexual identification, it was a reaction against all those years of being called boy. It worked. White people were so confused by ‘Hey, man’ that the sixties happened and everybody, of whatever race, started calling each other man, until the original significance was lost. This is an example of Progress.
Forsyth of course pays fitting homage to dictionaries. Well, some of them.
It’s absolutely necessary and fitting that a book such as this should devote a chapter to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. So we won’t. After all, Johnson didn’t write the first English dictionary. There were plenty before him and there have been plenty since...
He does give Johnson credit, though, for including "words of indescribable beauty like wamblecropt (afflicted with queasiness) that have since vanished from the language." Personally, I think we should bring that one back. It's the perfect word for calling in sick with a hang-over: 'Dreadfully sorry but I won't be coming to the office today. I'm feeling a bit wamblecropt.'

There is simply no way, however, to write a book on etymology without genuflecting before the OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I suppose it sounds vaguely pathetic to read books about dictionaries, but anyone who has ever used the OED will understand. It's simply a magnificent, amazing resource which includes not only the present definitions of a word, but the history of its usage throughout time. To have produced this marvel in the days before computers was a monumental feat well documented in Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.  Forsyth gives a highly abridged version.
The Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest work of reference ever written, and it’s largely the result of a Scotsman who left school at fourteen, and a criminally insane American. The Scotsman was a former cowherd called James Murray, who taught himself Latin, German, Italian, Ancient Greek, French, Anglo-Saxon, Russian, Tongan … well, nobody’s quite sure how many languages he knew. It’s usually estimated at 25. Murray became a schoolteacher and then in the 1860s he moved to London for his wife’s health and became a member of the Philological [word-loving] Society...  Minor [the American] had a lot of time on his hands, and also the advantage of being criminally insane, which is always a plus in lexicography.
Minor, after serving as a surgeon in the Civil War, had suffered what we would probably diagnose as PTSD today. When in London, he had an unfortunate paranoid episode and murdered a man in a dark alley, and the authorities locked him up in Broadmoor. Recognising that he was a gentleman, however, they gave him comfortable quarters and every book he requested. Prof. Murray didn't know for years that his number one contributor was a patient in the asylum. Although he sent reams of historical philology to the Professor, the madman was still a tad unstable.
Murray tried to give Minor emotional support but it didn’t really work, as Minor, in 1902, deliberately sliced off his own penis. This is called an autopeotomy and should not be attempted without due consideration.
Mr. Minor isn't the only psychologically impaired character in The Etymologicon. I'd always assumed that the thing running up the back of my calf had been called the Achilles tendon since classical times, but no -- it was actually named by an insane anatomist who found a lower leg to dissect uncomfortably close to home.
Verheyen was a very intelligent boy who started out as a cowherd (like the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary), but became an anatomist. Verheyen was one of the great dissectors, so when his own leg had to be amputated, it was partly a tragedy and partly a temptation. Verheyen was an ardent Christian who believed in the physical resurrection of the body. He therefore did not want his leg to be buried separately from the rest of him, as this would be a great inconvenience at the Day of Judgement. So he preserved it using chemicals, kept it with him at all times, and after a few years began to very carefully dissect his own leg. Carefully cutting up your own body is probably not good for the sanity.
Speaking of ardent Christians, you wouldn't be incorrect to call them cretins, though it might incur some righteous wrath.
Christians are all cretins, etymologically speaking, and cretins are all Christians. If this sounds unfair, it’s because language is much less kind than religion. The original cretins were deformed and mentally deficient dwarves found only in a few remote valleys in the Alps. These days their condition would be called congenital iodine deficiency syndrome, but the Swiss didn’t know anything about that. All they knew was that, though these people had a problem, they were still human beings and fellow Christians. So they called them Cretins, which means Christians.
And if a wrathful Christian were to punch your lights out, he or she might regret it.  Or not. Some Christian cretins nowadays are terribly, truthfully ruthless.
If something is true, it’s the truth. If you rue your actions, you feel ruth. If you don’t rue your actions, you feel no ruth and that makes you ruthless.
Some Christians might also go ballistic over a skimpy bikini, but that, too, is etymologically appropriate.
Bikini Atoll was put on the map (and almost removed from it) by America in 1946 when they tested their new atomic bombs there. Atom is Greek for unsplittable, but the Americans had discovered that by breaking the laws of etymology they were able to create vast explosions, and vast explosions were the best way of impressing the Soviets... the French saw what the French always see: sex. A fashion designer called Jacques Heim had just come up with a design for a two-piece bathing costume that he believed would be the world’s smallest swimsuit. He took it to a lingerie shop in Paris where the owner, Louis Réard, proved with a pair of scissors that it could be even more scandalously immodest. The result, Réard claimed, would cause an explosion of lust in the loins of every Frenchman so powerful that it could only be compared to the tests at Bikini Atoll, so he called the new swimwear the bikini.
When Columbus reached the lands on the far side of the Atlantic, he believed he'd reached India, the land of the Great Khan. He had, of course, discovered the Americas, which would provide silver and potatoes and lots of new words.

Columbus was therefore terribly pleased when he landed in Cuba and discovered that the people there called themselves Canibs, because he assumed that Canibs must really be Khanibs, which was a rare triumph of hope over etymology. At the next island Columbus came to, they told him they were Caribs, and at the island after that they were Calibs. This was because in the old languages of the Caribbean, Ns, Rs and Ls were pretty much interchangeable...  The sea got named the Caribbean after one pronunciation. But it was also believed in Europe that the islanders ate each other, and this gastronomic perversity came, on the basis of another pronunciation, to be called cannibalism.
Of course, we use the term 'discovery' somewhat loosely. The islands were only news to Columbus.
European explorers loved to name the places that they discovered, a habit that didn’t always endear them to the natives, who felt that they must have discovered the place first as they were already living there.
After the OED, Forsyth gives some notice to that other big book, which has had a rather erratic history of translation into English. This detail may give some pause to modern-day Anglophone Bible literalists. Or not.
It’s certainly true that the King James Version was a lot more accurate than Myles Coverdale’s attempt of a hundred years before. Myles Coverdale was an early Protestant who believed in principle that the Bible should be translated into English. He decided that, as nobody else seemed to be doing it, he had better get on with the job himself, and he didn’t let the tiny detail that he knew no Latin, Greek or Hebrew get in his way. This is the kind of can-do attitude that is sadly lacking in modern biblical scholarship.
When I reached what appeared to be the end of The Etymologicon (furiously pressing the 'next page' button on the Kindle to no avail), I was very sad, bordering on wamblecropt. I recovered a bit when I discovered that Mr. Forsyth goes on etymological rambles on a regular basis on his blog, The Inky Fool.

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