Taking a stroll through English with Mark Forsyth

Dawn Kennedy meets Mark Forsyth, the author of the witty, ribald Sunday Times number one bestseller The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

How and when did your interest in the connections between words begin?
I was given a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary as a christening present and I’ve never really recovered.

Is your aim to entertain or educate?
My plan was to write a book to be read on the lavatory. My highest literary aim was to give the world slightly more informative and entertaining emunctions. So I wanted to make people laugh, but not too hard.

Just how intertwined is language?
It’s everywhere, but you just don’t notice unless you stop and think. So awful (meaning bad) and awesome (meaning good) are quite obviously from the same root, but you’d never notice. You go further back and find that video and wisdom and the Sanskrit Vedas all come from the same root, which meant to see and understand.

Apparently most of English springs from a root called proto Indo-European…
Back in the 18th century there was a brilliant British classical scholar who went out to India to be a judge. He set himself to learn the ancient language of Sanskrit, from which the northern Indian languages derive. He realised that it was very, very, very like bits of Ancient Greek and Latin, and that they must have just been three dialects of a single language that existed before writing was invented. Since then people have discovered that the Germanic and Celtic languages come from the same origin. What’s lovely is that you can still hear some connections six millennia later. So the first syllable of Punjab, the land of the five rivers, still sounds like pentagon, the shape with five sides, or punch, the drink with five ingredients.

What is your favourite example of intertwining that you have come across?
Bluetooth technology that unites your phone with your computer is named after King Harold Bluetooth who united the warring provinces of Denmark a thousand years ago (the chap who invented it was reading a historical novel at the time). That’s reasonably well known. But Harold Bluetooth had a daughter-in-law called Queen Gunhilda. When cannons were invented they used to name them after famous women and that’s why there was one in Windsor Castle called the Queen Gunhilda. That got shortened to Gunhilda and then to gun. And every single gun in the world is still named after her. So you’ve got two modern technologies named after one little family a thousand years ago, and nobody realises.

How do you research it?
Most of it is done in the British Library in London chasing up leads and hunting down references. The internet can be a wonderful resource, but you have to be very careful to make sure that everything is true. Almost everything in The Etymologicon is backed up by the Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, what I liked most was chasing up more original citations, which can lead you to some very strange places. I particularly enjoyed finding an actual recipe for humble pie in a book of 1736 that nobody has seen in print since then.

Are we losing something as more people use an increasingly bland form of English for commercial purposes?
I don’t think there’s anything bland at all about commercial language. It contains amazing surprises. In The Etymologicon I tell the story of how a pharmaceutical company wanted a brand name for their new cough medicine, diacetylmorphine. The people who had tried it said the medicine made them feel wonderful and heroic. So they decided to call it heroin, which was a registered trademark right up till the First World War.

Your book began as a blog, The Inky Fool. How big a following did you build on your blog and how long did it take to build?
The blog began in 2009 as a place for me to tell amusing stories about the origins of words. It started slowly – I think all blogs do unless you’re a superstar – but I kept knocking out a post a day and by 2011 it was up to 10 000 hits a week, which is when I got an offer to write a whole book.

Have you been surprised at your success? Did you imagine that so many people are fascinated by words?
I was absolutely flabbergasted when The Etymologicon got to no. 1 on the bestseller list, but I always knew that people are interested in words. The English language is so familiar to us, so much a part of our everyday lives, that to discover, for example, that cappuccinos are named after capuchin monks (who have creamy brown robes) is like discovering an incident you never knew about in the life of one of your best friends.

Will you ever run out of words?
I shouldn’t think so. English is the largest language the world has ever known. There are 600 000 entries in the OED, and 50 000 words (give or take) in the average educated person’s vocabulary. So the few hundred interesting stories in The Etymologicon barely scratch the surface. And people are always thinking up new words. Only yesterday I was wondering what the fi in wi-fi internet stood for. It turns out that it doesn’t stand for anything, and is only there to make it sound like hi-fi, which came as a complete surprise to me.

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