Etymologicon and The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth

Posted: August 30, 2016 in Books, Criticism, Four Stars, Library, Literature, Non-Fiction, Reading, Reviews, Sanctuary, Teaching, Writers
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These are not worth separate blog posts: same basic book written in the same basic style about the same basic themes. 

Which sounds terribly dismissive but shouldn’t: as a self-confessed language geek who’s alert to the absurdity and beauty of our mongrel mother tongue, these books were a delightful treat.and a little like talking to myself or being a student in my own class. If that is the case, they’re lucky students!

The Etymologicon – as you might expect – cherry picks words with interesting etymologies, generally as a result of English’s tendency to beg, borrow, steal words from other languages, and then invent, twist and warp original meanings through metaphor, misunderstandings and imaginative leaps.

Short bite-sized chapters link one word to the next as we explore farts, peters and petards; rolling stones and guns; salt and soldiering; Nazis and Big Bangs and little feisty dogs.

It is a coffee table book, to dip into and out of, to turn to a (possibly bemused, patient or disgruntled) friend and say “Oh, did you know…?”

The written equivalent of watching an episode of QI. In fact, I have a feeling some of the tidbits in the book were familiar, possibly because they had been covered in QI!

The Elements of Eloquence is really the same thing, applied to rhetoric and a range of rhetorical devices. In fact, very many of them are the techniques I use and teach regularly. Generally without the Greek names attached!
As a writer, I was pleased by  opening anecdote which recounted how Forsyth turned round his writer wife to ask her what would have helped her in the style guides she’d read, only to hear the reply that she’d never read any. Writers read books, not guides. Which isn’t to say that the techniques covered aren’t valid, useful or real. But, steeped in writing, you feel them rather than learn them. 

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy learning them and seeing the examples that Forsyth has dredged from literature. I’m not sure I have the capacity to turn the perfect phrase yet, though!

Did I learn anything from these books? Yes, although not of a huge practical applicability.

Did I enjoy the witty and erudite and sometimes scatological style? Yes.

Fun, smart and witty. What’s not to love.

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