2012 in Books So Far: The Wonder of Words

(Otherwise known as pt. 2)

One of the best finds of this year, I have to say, has been the Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth. It is a must for any word-geek out there, tracing the history of certain words back to their origin and examining the unique social and cultural context which gave them their meaning. Now, that all sounds a little dreary, but it’s dealt with in a light, fun, conversational fashion that will provide you with anecdotal fodder for years to come.

For example, “A toxophilite is somebody who loves archery. The reason for this is that toxin comes from toxon, the Greek word for bow, and toxic comes from toxikos, the Greek word for pertaining to archery. This is because when the ancient Greeks went to war they always dipped their arrowheads in poison.”

He goes on further to say, “Archery used to be ubiquitous… In 1363 Edward III passed a law that required all men over the age of 14 and under the age of 60 to practice the sport once a week. Obviously it wasn’t so much a sport back then as a means of killing people. Edward III’s law has never actually been repealed.”

Take a second to think about that. What it means is that the vast majority of Britons today are breaking the law every week and no one seems to be noticing. I think someone should tell the Queen. Every page of the Etymologicon is like this, only better – it consistently blows my mind. I just find each little story to be absolutely fascinating, even just copying out a passage, as above, a part of me is gleefully delighting in the weirdness and wonderfulness of words and their histories.

It’s not just a matter of finding out the social and cultural context behind the use of certain words that is so remarkable, either, there are a number of instances where words were just made up. Just like that, out of the blue, and suddenly there were words that never before had been spoken but which have been totally and utterly enmeshed in language since, to the point where it is difficult to imagine our lives without them.

The most notable example of this invention of language was, without a shadow of a doubt, John Milton. As Forsyth says, “Milton adored inventing words. When he couldn’t find the right term, he just made one up: impassive, obtrusive, jubilant, loquacious, unconvincing, Satanic, persona, fragrance, beleaguered, sensuous, undesirable, disregard, damp, criticise, irresponsible, lovelorn, exhilarating, sectarian, unaccountable, incidental and cooking.”

I shit you not, people. Damp! Cooking! What the hell did people say before Milton spat out ‘cooking’?! “You there, go and create me some kind of edible deliciousness! At once!” It’s absolutely remarkable. My mind twists and turns when I try and think about creating a word, something entirely new, with a meaning all its own and… I just can’t do it. I mean, I could but it would be something ludicrous like wizzlewozzle – which is what I would have called apples, I guess. Now take a look back at the words Milton came up with and, I don’t know about you, but I melt. Loquacious? Jubilant. Sensuous. Fragrance. Exhilarating. These are beautiful words.

But if that’s not enough for you, well, you’re not alone, because it wasn’t enough for Milton either. He also came up with: awestruck, stunning, terrific, debauchery, depravity, extravagance, pandemonium, wording, enjoyable, and space (in the context of the universe). For more on that bit of absurdity (or profundity), here’s the passage:

“…[Milton] invented space travel, or at least made it linguistically possible. The word ‘space’ had been around for centuries but it was Milton who first applied it to the vast voids between the stars.”

If your mind hasn’t been blown by now, it never will be. I just want to quote the whole book to you, this ode to words that brims with intelligence, verve, and good humour. But I won’t go any further except to say that it’s absolutely worth your time. When I bought it, I think it was several dollars cheaper but the ebook is only $9.99and I wouldn’t hesitate to purchase it again, were I only being introduced to it now. I honestly barely scratched the surface with this and I’m still joyfully reading it now, I just had to take the time to share it with you (all 3 of my audience).

On a side note, it’s also unbearably depressing that in today’s world, we have not the creation of new and fantastic words, but the desecration of language instead with things like ‘lol’ and ‘av’ (for average, apparently) and ‘totes’ (totally) and so on and so forth. It’s all very well to use shorthand humourously, or ironically, as I certainly have, but for thousands of people – for the next generation even – it goes beyond doing it for humour’s sake and has become an accepted form of speech.

I think the Milton’s of this life are long since dead and gone, and the world is a sadder place for it.

March 26, 2012
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