The Etymologicon is an amusing look at the etymology of words and phrases, explaining connections between those that don’t always seem connected. It is written by Mark Forsyth, the author of a blog called The Inky Fool, and it does a rather clever thing. It starts with an explanation of “turn-up for the books,” a phrase I wasn’t actually familiar with. From that, it moves to a subject related to something he discussed in the first article, so that each article is linked to the next. The last one leads, you guessed it, right back to “a turn-up for the books.”
The book is amusingly written in a zippy style and is crammed full of facts, not just about the meaning of words. In style, it reminds me very much of the rapid fact-based videos done by John Green for Mental Floss. At the end, it even has some quizzes. It’s a good gift for someone interested in language or trivia.
I only have two critiques, and one I’m not sure of. First, the text is taken straight from the blog, it appears, with no attempt to remove the references to the next link. I call that lazy.
The second occurs in a section about butterflies. Forsyth says that the word for butterfly in Russian is the same as the word for little lady, bow tie, and girl, and that word, he says, is “babochkas (like babushkas).” (The s is of course the English plural, not the Russian. In context, he is talking in plurals.) Actually, “babochka” is the word for moth. I can let that go, because lots of people, including me, can’t tell a moth from a butterfly. But “dyevushka” is the Russian word for girl, unless there is some usage I’m not aware of. And “bábushka” means grandmother (whereas babúshka means kerchief). I have no idea what the word for bow tie is. The words for moth and grandmother are similar but they are certainly not the same. The word for girl is quite a bit different. This makes me wonder about the accuracy of other information, but maybe someone who is more familiar with Russian will correct me. Perhaps he’s trying to convey that the etymology of the words is the same, but what he actually says is that they’re the same word.
If so, I’ll be happy to be corrected, for I found this book an entertaining way to while away an afternoon.