GUEST BLOG: Points of origin
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GUEST BLOG: Points of origin

7th November 2011 - Mark Forsyth


Mark Forysth, a proofreader and ghostwriter fascinated with words and their origins, began his blog, The Inky Fool, in 2009. Almost every day since, he's posted about a new etymological discovery. He nows publishes his first book, The Etymologicon: A Circular Walk through the Hidden Connections of the English Language.


The Etymologicon by Mark ForsythIf you want to know what a bibliophile is you have two options. You can look it up in a dictionary, or you can toddle down to the Foyles on Charing Cross Road any weekday lunchtime and watch the office workers of Soho expending their precious lunch hour in a tome-filled nook.


However, if you use the dictionary you get the advantage of seeing all the related words. And as I've just written an entire book on how words relate to each other through a strange etymological sewer system that runs beneath the English languge, I have to admit that I'd plump for the dictionary. For example, a couple of entries up from bibliophile you'll find bibliomaniac - one with a rage for collecting and possessing books - which has a pleasantly intimidating ring to it.


Now, you might object that you'll find bibliomaniacs in Foyles as well. Indeed, it would be a bibliomaniac-hunter's first stop. But back in the dictionary you'll find another word lurking between bibliophile and bibliomania: bibliophagist. A bibliophagist is a devourer of books. It comes from Greek root phagein which meant eat.


If you put the Greek anthropos, or man, in front of phagous you get a man-eater. Othello wooed Desdemona by telling her all about:


...of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.


Which, if you think about it, is a strange way of wooing a girl - I fear I may have been getting it wrong all these years.


But phagous has other connections, for example it pops up in the word sarcophagus, because a sarcophagus is something that swallows up your body. Sarcos is Greek for flesh and in the ancient world a sarcophagus was a kind of tomb lined with lined with limestone which would dissolve your body like a hungry acid bath. But the etymological line of connection doesn't end there (my book proves that it never does). You see sarcos also turns up in our own English word sarcasm.


When you are sarcastic to someone, you are metaphorically and etymologically, ripping the flesh from their bodies. Of course, these days sarcasm is often confused with irony. It's one of those bugbears of traditional English teachers that you should only use sarcastic to mean cruel (and flesh-ripping) and irony to refer to somebody saying something that is intentionally at odds with reality (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I have spent my entire life intentionally at odds with reality and it's done me no end of good).


Such English teachers will also tell you that you shouldn't use nice to mean nice and that it really ought to mean precise. What they haven't noticed was that nice originally meant foolish (C14th), then (C15th) it meant wanton and lascivious as in Philip Sydney's "Nice pleasures and fond vanities", and only then did it come to mean precise. Moreover, nice has meant pleasant since the eighteenth century. This leaves a word-pecker like me wondering why you would turn the clock back three centuries, but no more.


Anyway, to return to irony, if you check it in the OED you'll find that the first meaning of irony in English was of or pertaining to iron, which makes a lot of sense. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century chemists were still writing about irony crystals, which now would be part of the armoury of a sarcastic new-ager. (Our familiar irony, coming from the Greek eiron, didn't arrive till a century or so later.) So, when the iron enters into your soul, you should really become soulfully ironic.


However, in The Etymologicon I've explained how the phrase the iron entered into his soul is, in fact, a terrible mistake. You see, the phrase comes from an early translation of the Bible by a chap called Myles Coverdale. Coverdale was an enthusiastic translator, but unfortunately he only spoke a little bit of German, which doesn't help with Hebrew. The Coverdale Psalter (which is still used in the Church of England) is therefore jam-packed with howlers, one of which is that a verse that should properly read his neck was bound in iron somehow came out as the iron entered into his soul. It's a mistranslation, but it's a beautiful one, and the phrase was arresting enough to survive in English despite all the assaults of those ugly sisters: Truth and Scholarship.


Bible, of course, is just the Greek for book, which brings us neatly back round in an linguistic circle to all the bibliophiles, maniacs and phagists pottering around Foyles at lunchtime, one of which is often me.


Visit Mark's blog The Inky Fool


Read two sample chapters from David Crystal's The Story of 100 Words


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