Saturday, 14 January 2012

A Love Affair with Words - The Etymologicon


I’ve always loved words - can remember rolling them round and round in my head as a child, trying to work out what they meant.  My parents, living in an isolated croft in the Cheviot hills, used to listen to the radio a lot, and I can remember lying in bed listening to the voices in the next room.  One of my favourites was the weather forecast for shipping with its strange litany of place names, Shannon, Rockall, Malin, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight.

Words had personalities, and sometimes colours, of their own.  Monday was always yellow, Tuesday blue, Wednesday green - I learned long words from the radio without any idea of what they meant.  Meretricious was one - I thought it sounded like being deliciously rewarded for being good.  Only when I grew up did I find out that it means ‘befitting a prostitute’!

Being brought up in the North of England also means having a rich resource of Norse dialect to draw on - wonderful, strong words like pebbles in your mouth - ‘thrang’ meaning to be busy, ‘lowp’ meaning jump, and ‘nithered’ which meant shivering with cold, which we were - often.  You didn’t fix things, you ‘fettled them up’ and if you were feeling well you were ‘in good fettle’.

The origin of words and how language changes over time is fascinating.  English is such a hotch-potch of Anglo-saxon, Latin, French and other borrowed languages it often results in crazy connections - many of them logged in Mark Forsyth’s hilarious scramble through the dictionary - The Etymologicon (currently only £1.99 on Kindle). 


The connection between chickens and snooker?  A French ‘poule’ (chicken) which becomes a ‘pool’ of money in the centre of a gaming(chickens again) table - hence anything held in common - a gene pool, a typing pool, a car pool, not to mention the game of pool, billiards and snooker - and back to French hens again.

Anyone guess the relationship between male body parts and the New and Old Testaments of the Bible, and to detest, protest and contest? Apparently you once (well, men anyway) used to have to use essential body parts to guarantee veracity.    And Avocado is the Aztec word for the same thing, since the Aztecs thought the fruit were shaped like gonads - so they should really be called Aztec Balls.

So many words came originally from eating and sex and, of course in English, the weather.  No surprise to anyone living in the north of the country that the word for Sky comes from the Viking word for Cloud, since they’re often one and the same thing.   Also no surprise that the word Dream comes from the Anglo Saxon for Happiness.

The expression ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ comes from a way of cheating someone who was trying to buy ‘a pig in a poke’.  And sometimes it was a dog that was substituted, which meant they were ‘selling you a pup’ instead of a pig.

I laughed a great deal when I read this book and it reminded me how much I love words, just for themselves.

2 comments:

  1. I have to get this. I love words too.
    We English language users are so blessed by such a rich vocabulary.
    The joys of rewriting a sentence to make it subtly different.
    Then of course adding the icing of local language, be it Cumbrian or Oz.

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  2. I think it's probably the only reason to be a writer, so that you can use them!! Like you, I love the variations. I find Oz fascinating - great rhythms and an oblique - and very visual - way of expressing things sometimes (flat out like a goanna?)

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