Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

For more elegant, witty writing from a hundred years ago, try these…

Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm for a hilarious fantasy novel about all the men in Oxford killing themselves out of love for one beautiful woman

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley for an incredibly intelligent book about inflatable underpants

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh for adventures of an innocent man in a deliciously sinful world

The Diary of a Nobody by George & Weedon Grossmith for ponderings from the suburb

This post was guest edited by writer Mark Forsyth. His latest book, The Elements of Eloquence, is out now. You can find him on Twitter.

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There’s always a strange feeling you get when you come across one particular line by chance. It feels somehow significant. That’s irrational of course, but humans are irrational creatures. Even the sturdiest, most down-to-earth chap will turn pale if he opens a book at random and sees the words PREPARE TO MEET THY DEATH.
—  Mark Forsyth, The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted
Opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.
—  Mark Forsyth explains English adjective order, quoted in “What’s notable about ‘a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife’?”, by Christopher Howse in The Spectator

Essentially, Agamemnon gives a long speech commanding the Greeks to jenticulate (which is the posh way of saying eat your breakfast). Achilles, though, is having none of it and gives an even longer speech pointing out that they are late for work (i.e. killing Trojans) and really ought to get on with it. Odysseus then weighs in with an even longer speech that essentially says, ‘It’s the most important meal of the day. You might not feel like it now, but when you’re bathing in the blood of your enemies, you’ll regret it.’ Achilles says that really, he’d rather not, especially as his breakfast always used to be made by his best friend Patroclus, whose mangled body now lies in his tent…

And that would have been that, except that the gods themselves are very keen that Achilles should have a hearty breakfast, so, at Zeus’s direct order, Athena descends from heaven and magically instils 'heaven’s most-to-be-desired feast’ directly into his body, thus allowing him to set off for work.

Then there’s a brief incident with a talking horse and the book ends.

—  Mark Forsyth accurately summarises book nineteen of Homer’s Iliad in Horologicon, a wonderful book about archaic and peculiar words, arranged according to whatever time of the day you happen to pick up the book.

Mark Foryth, author of the fascinating new book The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, takes an “unruly” look at the English language

Egrote is a fantastically useful word meaning ‘to feign sickness in order to avoid work’. If it has fallen out of use, the cause must be that workers have lost their cunning. So here are some instructions for the beginner.
Wait until your boss has answered the phone and then start to whindle. Whindling is defined in a dictionary of 1699 as ‘feigned groaning’. It’s vital to whindle for a while before giving your name in a weak voice. Explain that you are a sickrel and that work is beyond you. If asked for details, say that you’re floccilating (feverishly plucking at the bedclothes) and jactating (tossing around feverishly).
If your boss insists that you name your actual condition, don’t call it dysania. Go instead for a severe case of hum durgeon. Unless your boss is fluent in eighteenth-century slang he’ll never suspect that:

HUM DURGEON. An imaginary illness. He has got the hum durgeon, the thickest part of his thigh is nearest his arse; i.e. nothing ails him except low spirits.

Unfortunately, you cannot use hum durgeon every day. Your employer will suspect. You can probably get away with it at most twice a week, and the second time you should probably just shriek ‘My thighs! My thighs!’ down the telephone until they hang up.

—  Mark Forsyth, “The Horologicon: A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language”
Writers these days devote their time to research, Shakespeare devoted his to writing. He set a whole play in Venice, apparently unaware that there were any canals there; at least he never mentions any, and whenever the city pops up he refers to it as a land, even though it’s in the sea.

Shakespeare seems never to have consulted a map […] After all, fiction is only fact minus time. If the polar ice caps keep melting the sea will, eventually, come to Verona, to Milan and finally to Bergamo. Then the Sun will expand and the Earth, in a few billion years’ time, will be a parched and burning rock, and the charred bones of Shakespeare, resting in their grave, will be vindicated because all the canals in Venice will be dry.
—  Mark Forsyth'sThe Etymologicon
Oxygen was called flammable air for a while, but it didn’t catch on. It just didn’t have the right scientific ring to it. We all know that scientific words need an obscure classical origin to make them sound impressive to those who wouldn’t know an idiopathic craniofacial erythema if it hit them in the face.
—  From The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth

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