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Etymological Affairs

Few subjects excite the humanity as much as language.

Few subjects excite the humanity as much as language. Proof? Look through Amazon bestsellers; several months ago a spelling book by David Crystal was topping Fifty Shades of Grey. Language is sexy, no doubt - no grey matter in here! So it hardly comes as a surprise to see over 300 reviews of a book on etymology, namely, Mark Forsyth's Etymologicon.

These days we are no longer content with just a hardback to sniff and a paperback to caress on the bedside table but feel more intimateness with a book when it snuggly talks to us from our smartphones or iPods.

In between the publication of the hardback and paperback, AudioGo, BBC Audiobooks, produced the audio version of Mark Forsyth's Etymologicon. Whilst chewing food with one's feet on the head of the sofa, we learn about the connection between testicles and testament, sex and bread, Christians and cretins, monks and monkeys and what not.

If soon in Anglo-Saxon meant now - does that mean we have grown to be sluggish? Who would ever suspect California is named after a Muslim queen or that there is a tender love story lurking behind halcyon days or that we have both guarantee and warranty because of a lazy mess-up of the old letter g (yogh)?

Now that you know the history of the word gymnasium, it is terribly tempting to want to train in your birthday suit next time you are in the gym - that would be linguistically original, at the least...

My most favourite discovery was the significance of the ring finger - people believed there was a vein going from the ring finger of the left hand directly to the heart, hence the marital import of it.

Amongst other fascinating word biographies, the diversity and amount of Milton's neologisms is discussed - these include the word etymologicon! Yet I find it a bit strange Shakespeare's many lexical innovations have not invited serious contemplation in the book save a few scanty references, like assassination.

Thus word etymologies connect and intertwine, naturally constructing the spine of the (audio)book. How very fascinating it is to trot through the semantic jigsaw of the English wordstock! And it is the alive stories and sentiments beyond each word that glorify this most intriguing language.

The only drawback to note is that the audiobook is not read by the author himself. Simon Shepherd is our word story teller. I believe the audiobook which is read in the first person would have benefitted more if read by the author himself. And the plus of it would not only be the more veritable engagement of the author with his audience - the writer of the book would simply read it better than someone busier with artistic production. You will hardly have an issue with Shepherd's fast delivery and "witty intonation" - but my students will. Being such a wonderful educational resource, it is not thoroughly designed for educative purposes. Teachers will have to overcome the notable inconvenience of having to adapt it for classroom use.

Anyway, language lovers are still guaranteed a few hours' enjoyable gallop through English etymology. The audiobook is, no doubt, a delight to have in your iPhone.

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