The Etymologicon

My son gave me a book called ‘The Etymologicon’ for Christmas last year but it’s been a busy year and I’ve only just got round to reading it. it’s written by the Inky Fool (what a delightful name!) who is Mark Forsyth and is subtitled ‘A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language’.

I would guess that most English speakers take our wonderful, complex and mysterious language for granted, we just speak it, with an array of dialects and accents and constant quibbles about what is ‘proper’ English. As a writer, language is my tool, the stuff I work with to create my stories, as a teacher it was my subject, and as me it is my passion and my love. I am endlessly fascinated by it.

To go back to Mark’s book, which I’m thoroughly enjoying,

… it takes us on a wonderful stroll through the origins of everyday words and phrases in a delightfully amusing and humorous way. Just looking at some of his headings will give you a clue: ‘The Old and New Testicle’, ‘Parenthetical Codpieces’, ‘Bloody Typical Semantic Shifts’, and ‘John the Baptist and The Sound of Music’.

Taking that last chapter, Mark explains the origin of the ‘do, re, mi,’ scale, memorable (…. for so many reasons) as a song in ‘The Sound of Music’. I’m also reminded by an episode in ‘The Simpsons’ where Homer spots a deer… you can guess the rest.

About two thousand years ago a perfectly respectable lady called Elizabeth became pregnant and her husband lost his voice. He stayed silent as a silo until the child was born. The child was called John, and when John grew up he began telling people they were naughty and chucking them in a river. Now, if you or I tried a stunt like that we’d be brought up by the police pretty sharpish. But john got away with it, and if you can believe it, was considered rather holy for all his attempted drownings. Chaps at the time called him John the Baptist.

Mark goes on to explain that a prayer was written to John seven hundred years later, in Latin. The melody had each lines starting with a note higher than the last and then dropped back to the beginning again. It was eventually abbreviated to just the first word of each line, ‘ut, mi, fa, So, la, ti, do, si’

The problem with ‘ut’ though, is that it’s rather a short syllable and difficult for a singer to hold. Try it. So ‘ut’ got changed to do (perhaps for dominus, but nobody’s sure) and that gave do, re mi, fa, so, la, and by extension, si for Sanctus Iohannis. Then somebody pointed out that there was already a so beginning with s and you couldn’t rightly have two lines beginning with the same letter so si was changed to ti.

Mark concludes:

So do is not a deer, a female deer, and re is not a drop of golden sun. The von Trapp family were cruelly deceived.

I really recommend this book, you’ll find if you read it that you will never think about words in the same way and you’ll be amazed at the history and richness of our language.


    1. Lois

      You’ll love it, Isabel, you’ll be chortling out loud! it’s fascinating as well, especially if you’re well-read as you are, some of the origins of words are so interesting!


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