The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

Ever wonder about the origin of words and phrases? No? Well perhaps you should, because delving into the origins of things we commonly say without thinking about it is actually very interesting. At least it is when you read The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, a book based on his blog The Inky Fool. I first heard of this book listening to Radio 4’s Book of the Week, late one night and to my surprise ( and I must confess delight) discovered the origins of the word fart and how it linked to the phrase ‘feisty heroine’. Apparently, in Elizabethan times a smelly dog was called a ‘fisting cur’. Fist in the Old English meant ‘fart’. By the eighteenth century any little dog was called a ‘feist’, which is where the word feisty comes from. And as little dogs like barking at almost anything, ‘uppity girls’ (Mr Forsyth’s words not mine) were called ‘feisty’, therefore unceremoniously linking girls who like to stand up for themselves with farting dogs. Lovely!

But it was gems like these that kept me listening night after night and I just had to read the rest for myself. I realise this book might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but trust me when I say, it is truly funny, well written, very easy to read and quite frankly you will learn something.

Take for instance the word slave. It comes from Slav because back in the day the Slavs were everyone slave. In Italian, slave translated to schiavo and in Medieval Times, Italians would greet each other saying ‘I am your slave’ or ‘Sono vostro schiavo’.  This greeting was later shortened to schiavo, then later still, ciao. So next time you say ciao to someone, you are actually declaring yourself to be their slave. Something to think about when visiting Italy and speaking to Italians.

And there were more. Did you know that John Milton was one of the most prolific word inventors. He gave us awe-struck, Satanic, pandemonium, persona, sensuous, exhilarating and then some. And if that wasn’t enough he gave us phrases like ‘all Hell breaks loose’, which is from Paradise Lost. I could go on but I’ll end up spoiling the best bits and I’d really like for people to release their inner language pedant and read this because it’s really quite good!

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