The Etymologicon

I learnt about this book, thanks to a fellow teacher. The origin of this book, by the journalist Mark Forsyth, is popular blog The Inky Fool. The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language is a book for those of us who love QI. Forsyth looks at the unexpected connections between words. Here are some of my favourites:

Sausage Poison in Your Face

The Latin word for sausage was botulus, from which English gets two words. One of them is the lovely botuliform, which means sausage-shaped and is a more useful word than you might think. The other word is botulism.

Sausages may taste lovely, but it’s usually best not to ask what’s actually in them. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was a sausage-maker who disposed of the body. In nineteenth-century America, the belief that sausages were usually made out of dog meat was so widespread that they started to be called hotdogs, a word that survives to this day. Sausages are stuffed with pork and peril. They don’t usually kill you, but they can.

There was an early nineteenth-century German called Justinus Kerner, who when not writing rather dreary Swabian poetry worked as a doctor. His poetry is now quite justifiably forgotten, but his medical work lives on. Kerner identified a new disease that killed some of his patients. It was a horrible malady that slowly paralysed every part of the body until the victim’s heart stopped and he died. Kerner realised that all his dead patients had been eating cheap meat in sausages, so he decided to call the ailment botulism, or sausage disease. He also correctly deduced that bad sausages must contain a poison of some sort, which he called botulinum toxin.

In 1895 there was a funeral in Belgium. Ham was served to the guests at the wake and three of them dropped down dead. This must have delighted the undertakers, but it also meant that the remaining meat could be rushed to the University of Ghent. The Professor of Bacteria studied the homicidal ham under a microscope and finally identified the culprit, little bacteria that were, appropriately, shaped like sausages and are now called Clostridium botulinum.

This was an advance because it meant that Kerner’s botulinum toxin could be manufactured. Now, you might be wondering why anybody would want to manufacture botulinum toxin. It is, after all, a poison. In fact, one microgram of it will cause near-instantaneous death by paralysis. But paralysis can sometimes be a good thing. If, for example, you’re afflicted by facial spasms, then a doctor can inject a tinsy-winsy little dose of botulinum toxin into the affected area. A little, temporary paralysis kicks in, and the spasms are cured. Wonderful.

That, at least, was the original reason for manufacturing botulinum toxin; but very quickly people discovered that if you paralysed somebody’s face it made them look a little bit younger. It also made them look very odd and incapable of expressing emotion, but who cares about that if you can remove a few years’ worth of ageing?

Suddenly sausage poison was chic! The rich and famous couldn’t get enough of sausage poison. It could extend aHollywoodactress’s career by years. Old ladies could look middle-aged again! Injections of Kerner’s sausage poison were like plastic surgery but less painful and less permanent. Sausage poison became the toast of Hollywood.

Of course, it’s not called sausage poison any more. That wouldn’t be very glamorous. It’s not even called botulinum toxin, because everybody knows that toxins are bad for you. Now that botulinum toxin has become chic, it’s changed its name to Botox.


Heckling is, or once was, the process of removing the knots from wool. Sheep are notoriously lackadaisical about their appearance, so before their wool can be turned into a nice warm jumper it must be combed.

It’s easy to see how combing wool and teasing out the knots could be used metaphorically for combing through an oration and teasing the orator, but the connection is probably far more direct and goes to the Scottish town of Dundee.

Dundee was a radical place in the eighteenth century. It was the local centre of the wool trade and was therefore overrun with hecklers. The hecklers were the most radical workers of all. They formed themselves into what today would be called a trade union and used collective bargaining to guarantee themselves good pay and perks. The perks were mostly in the form of alcohol, but that was to be expected.

They were a political lot, the hecklers. Every morning while most of them were busy heckling, one of their number would stand up and read aloud from the day’s news. They thus formed strong opinions on all subjects and when politicians and dignitaries tried to address them, their speeches were combed over with the same thoroughness as the wool. Thus heckling.

Wool is everywhere in language. If you possess a mobile phone you are probably wooling your friends every day without even realising it. You are, after all, currently reading wool.

Or had you never noticed the connection between text and textile?

That you send woolly messages on your telephone and read wool and cite wool from the Bible is all down to a Roman orator named Quintilian. Quintilian was the greatest orator of his day, so great that the Emperor Domitian appointed him as tutor to his two grand-nephews who were also his heirs. Nobody knows what exactly Quintilian taught them, but Domitian soon sent them both into exile.

The two lines of Quintilian that interest us are in the Institutio Oratorico, a gargantuan twelve-volume work on absolutely everything to do with rhetoric. In it, Quintilian says that after you have chosen your words you must weave them together into a fabric – in textu iungantur – until you have a fine and delicate text[ure[ile]] or textum tenue atque rasum.

It’s the sort of thing we say all the time. We weave stories together and embroider them and try never to lose the thread of the story. Quintilian’s metaphor lasted. Late classical writers took up text to mean any short passage in a book and then we took it to mean anything that was written down and then somebody invented the SMS message.

Psychoanalysis and the Release of the Butterfly

With this in mind one can imagine Sigmund Freud sitting in his study in Vienna and considering Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul and mystical butterfly. That’s what he was analysing (with the stress on the first two syllables), so he decided to call his new invention psychoanalysis. Analysis is Greek for release. So Freud’s new art would be, literally, the liberation of the butterfly. How pretty!

Ciao Slave-driver

The word slave comes from Slav, and though it varies between Western languages the poor Slavs were everybody’s original slave. The Dutch got slaaf, the Germans got Sklav, the Spanish got esclavo and the Italians got schiavo.

Medieval Italians were terribly serious fellows. They would wander around solemnly declaring to each other ‘I am your slave’. However, being medieval Italians, what they actually said was Sono vostro schiavo.

Then they got lazy and shortened it to schiavo. In the north, where they were lazier still, this got changed to ciao.

Then, a few centuries later, the Italians got all energetic and tried to join in the Second World War. British and American troops were sent to tick them off.5 These Allied troops picked up the word ciao and when they got back to their own countries they introduced it into English. It was considered a rather exotic new word. But be wary when you say ciao: however dashing and Mediterranean you may think you’re being, you are, etymologically, declaring your own enslavement.

Ciao has an exact opposite, in the greeting Hey, man. In the United States, before the Civil War had finally established the idea that slavery isn’t completely compatible with the Land of the Free, slave-owners used to call their slaves boy.

The Battle of Gettysburg freed the slaves and produced a memorable address, but it didn’t, unfortunately, come with a socio-economic plan or a new language. Slave-owners weren’t allowed to own slaves any more, but they continued to be rather nasty to their ex-slaves and kept calling them boy in a significant sort of way that annoyed the hell out of the manumitted.

All over America, infuriating white people would address black men with the words ‘Hey, boy’. And it grated. It really grated.

That’s why, in the 1940s, black Americans started taking the fight the other way and greeting each other with the words ‘Hey, man’. The vocative was not inserted for the purposes of sexual identification, it was a reaction against all those years of being called boy.

It worked. White people were so confused by ‘Hey, man’ that the sixties happened and everybody, of whatever race, started calling each other man, until the original significance was lost. This is an example of Progress.

Insulting Names

It’s a funny thing, but Hitler wouldn’t have called himself a Nazi. Indeed, he became quite offended when anyone did suggest he was a Nazi. He would have considered himself a National Socialist. Nazi is, and always has been, an insult.

Hitler was head of the catchily-named Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). But, like the Cambridge University Netball Team, he hadn’t thought through the name properly. You see, his opponents realised that you could shorten Nationalsozialistische to Nazi. Why would they do this? Because Nazi was already an (utterly unrelated) term of abuse. It had been for years.

Every culture has a butt for its jokes. Americans have the Polacks, the English have the Irish, and the Irish have people fromCork. The standard butt of German jokes at the beginning of the twentieth century were stupid Bavarian peasants. And just as Irish jokes always involve a man called Paddy, so Bavarian jokes always involved a peasant called Nazi. That’s because Nazi was a shortening of the very common Bavarian name Ignatius.

This meant that Hitler’s opponents had an open goal. He had a party filled with Bavarian hicks and the name of that party could be shortened to the standard joke name for hicks. (Incidentally, hick was formed in exactly the same way as Nazi. Hick was a rural shortening of Richard and became a byword for uneducated famers.)

Imagine if a right-winger from Alabama started a campaign called Red States for the Next America. That’s essentially what Hitler did.

Hitler and his fascists didn’t know what to do about the derogatory nickname Nazi. At first they hated the word. Then, briefly, they tried to reclaim it, in roughly the way that some gay people try to reclaim old insults like queer. But once they got to power they adopted the much simpler approach of persecuting their opponents and forcing them to flee the country.

So refugees started turning up elsewhere complaining about the Nazis, and non-Germans of course assumed that this was the official name of the party. Meanwhile, all the Germans who remained in Germany obediently called them the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, at least when the police were listening. To this day, most of us happily go about believing that the Nazis called themselves Nazis, when in fact they would probably have beaten you up for saying the word.

So it all goes back to the popularity of the name Ignatius. The reason that Ignatius was such a common name in Bavaria is that Bavaria is largely Catholic and therefore very fond of St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits.

The Jesuits were set up in the seventeenth century to combat the rise of Protestantism, which had become the state religion of England. They soon gained a reputation for being very clever indeed. But as the Jesuits’ cleverness was largely directed against the Protestant English, English Protestants took their name, made an adjective – Jesuitical – and used it to describe something that’s too clever by half, and that uses logical tricks at the expense of common sense.

This is a tad unfair on the poor Jesuits, who have been responsible for the educations of some of the most famous men in history: Fidel Castro, Bill Clinton, Charles de Gaulle, Cardinal Richelieu, Robert Altman, James Joyce, Tom Clancy, Molière, Arthur Conan Doyle, Bing Crosby, Freddie Mercury, René Descartes, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Alfred Hitchcock, Elmore Leonard, Spencer Tracy, Voltaire and Georges Lemaître.

And if the last name on that list is unfamiliar, it shouldn’t be. Monsignor Georges Lemaître was one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. His great idea, proposed in 1927, was the theory of the Primeval Atom, which of course you haven’t heard of.

That’s because the theory of the Primeval Atom, like the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, is a name that never made it. It vanished, usurped by an insult.

The theory of the Primeval Atom asserts that the universe has not been around for eternity, and that instead it started off 13.7 billion years ago with all matter contained in a single point: the Primeval Atom. This point exploded and expanded, space cooled, galaxies were formed, et cetera et cetera.

Many people disagreed with this theory, including the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle. He thought that the universe had always been around, and decided to undermine Lemaître’s theory by calling it something silly. So he racked his brains and came up with the silliest name he could think of. He called it the Big Bang Theory, because he hoped that Big Bang captured the childishness and simplicity of the idea.


I will be coming back to this book in the future.


One Response to The Etymologicon

  1. Alberto says:

    Extremely interesting, as usual.

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