Book review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll come straight to the point: Mark Forsyth is one of my very, very, very favourite writers. He shares with another of my top favourites, Bill Bryson, two vital qualities:

Firstly, he’s hilarious. I mean, not forced ‘tell a gag’ kind of humour. Just pure natural, really funny observations of life and ways of putting things.

Secondly, his books are absolutely fascinating and brilliantly written.

I read his ‘Elements of Eloquence’ a few years ago and the book now sits permanently on my desk, dipped into on a daily basis – except for recently giving it to my daughter insisting she ‘had to read it’ or her life would never be fulfilled. Funnily enough, it is her copy of ‘The Etymologicon’ which I ended up reading next and is now in front of me as I write this review. We kinda converted each other I guess.

‘The Etymologicon’ is a book written entirely to please the whim of the author himself. Forsyth readily admits a love of etymology and explains in the introduction that he can’t help but find himself on a spaghetti trail of connections when he thinks of the origins of one single word. From this arose the idea of a book dedicated to the origins of words and phrases, each connecting to the next until, eventually, we go full circle. And that’s it. the whole purpose of the book.

In a sense then, this book is a folly. An idle curiosity which, the author says, can be left on a shelf in the toilet to be picked up, dipped into, and put down again. In this sense, the book fails; it is way too fascinating to put in a toilet. People will get piles or something from sitting there too long.

Instead, ‘The Etymologicon’ is better suited to the bedroom, where you can dip in and out at leisure – and comfortable leisure at that. Except, don’t do it if you have a partner who sleeps before you do. You’d have to be made of stone not to at least giggle your way through this book. I’m afraid I regularly guffawed loudly. Hmmm, thinking about it, perhaps the bedroom isn’t the best place. Nor any form of public transport unless you’re happy for fellow passengers to think you’re a raving loony.

Where to put it then? Perhaps best is a coffee break – if you’re able to take them alone or risk boring colleagues or family to death by the urge (and you will have this urge, trust me) to tell them a potted version of what you’ve just read. Thinking about it, perhaps this book should have a health warning attached? All of Mark Forsyth’s books should. Maybe Forsyth himself should just have one? Certainly, you might end up with grimaces, rolling eyes, tuts barely under the breath…and I could well believe that one too many ‘you’ve got to hear this’ comments could end up with physical harm ensuing.

Well, that’s tough if they don’t want to hear it. For hoarders of trivia like myself, Forsyth pours the nectar of the gods into his writing and the world is a more informed, funnier, better world for it.

I’ve read books where authors try to be funny and simply fail because they never quite hit that indefinable mark. Forsyth never ever misses. It’s a bizarre skill – one I envy – and certainly one to be studied. He is rude and even smutty without ever being coarse ( look at his reference to ‘Old and New Testicles’ for a good example of that), and he can make even the most innocent of things become sexual (did you know your computer keyboard contains symbols of male genitalia? They really do). He is also concise and remarkably easy to read. Forsyth never comes across as opinionated, arrogant or condescending to others. I can’t think of a single time he has insulted any group of people or religious community, despite a myriad of jokey comments in these directions. He has a gift of entertaining, bringing you the OMG-did-he-just-say-that? moment and yet never goes as far as upsetting you. For this, if nothing else, the man should receive the highest plaudits.

And of course, he has. Praised to the hilt by the BBC, The Sunday Times and numerous other lofty institutions, he is known as one of the world’s greatest commentators on the English language, and rightly so. I can’t help but feel an amateurish beginner before him as I stumble over my words here; but Mark Forsyth inspires me to love English more and learn to use it better. That’s got to be a good thing.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. His third book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, was published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways and Lancashire Life magazine. Currently reviews for Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 5.5 million times.


5 thoughts on “Book review: The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth

  1. Thanks. Will check it out. I’ve always found the subject interesting. The science of linguistics always struck me as a humorless discipline, even more humorous than the other disciplines.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think I will like this book. ( At first I thought you were talking about Frederick Forsyth, and I was like, ” he’s hilarious ?? lol )

    I just wrote down the title and the author. The nearest book store ( Barnes and Noble ) is not yet open. I do try to patronize real book stores , I don’t want them to close and lose to Amazon.

    Liked by 2 people

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