mark-forsyth

Shit can be traced back to the Old English verb scitan (which meant exactly what it does today), and further back to Proto-Germanic skit (the Germans still say scheisse), and all the way back to the Proto-Indo-European word (c. 4000 BC) skhei, which meant to separate or divide, presumably on the basis that you separated yourself from your faeces. Shed (as in shed your skin) comes from the same root, and so does schism.

An odd little aspect of this etymology is that when Proto-Indo-European arrived in the Italian peninsula they used skhei to mean separate or distinguish. If you could tell two things apart then you knew them, and so the Latin word for know became scire. From that you got the Latin word scientia, which meant knowledge, and from that we got the word science This means that science is, etymologically, shit. It also means that knowing your shit, etymologically, means that you’re good at physics and chemistry.

—  Mark Forsyth (The Inky Fool), The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
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

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.
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
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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