REVIEW: The Horologicon

The Horologicon
Mark Forsyth
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REVIEW: Karen Jeynes

The Horologicon is, I can confidently say, a…oh, what’s the word? Yes, that’s it, a multivagant celebration of language. Multivagant, as you will learn on page 220, means “wandering hither and thither”, and is related to “extravagant” – “wandering beyond the bounds” and, as Mark Forsyth thinks you might want to know at 11pm, “solivagant”  – “wandering alone towards your far-off felicity”.
In my case, that felicity would be time spent devouring this masterpiece. From the moment it arrived in my hands I was in love. From the classic cover to the list of obscure dictionaries from which Forsyth gleaned some of his gems, I was hooked. This is word-nerd heaven, and I instantly bought the book and gave it to two people, and recommended it to several more.

Forsythe first gave us The Etymologicon and followed up quickly with The Horologicon.

Forsythe first gave us The Etymologicon and followed up quickly with The Horologicon.

Following on the extraordinary success of The Etymologicon, Mark Forsyth brings us “a day’s jaunt through the lost words of the English language”. The Horologicon, or book of hours, is a collection of beautiful, funny, odd and interesting words, divided into the hours when you might most need them. After lunch you might be wamblecroft – afflicted with an uneasiness of the stomach. At 6am you might be in a zwodder, a half-stupefied state. This division has been made so that words about similar things can be woven together. The theory is that you can dip into the book at a suitable hour, and read something appropriate to your state of mind. The reality is you will be hooked, and read for several hours at once.
The genius of Forsyth. who blogs as The Inky Fool, lies in his ability to draw you in to the enticing world of words. His enthusiasm for them oozes off the page. He is evidently vastly knowledgeable, but unlike many purveyors of knowledge his style is inclusive and accessible. It is impossible not to be lured in, and become addicted to, the words, the meanings, and the very celebration of our human ability and desire to express just about every emotion and occurrence. The decision to arrange the words by hours and weave them together with a narrative makes this book as readable as a novel, while remaining as useful as a dictionary. And the application of words to everyday situations means that they are far more likely to linger in your mind than if they were presented in a dry and academic style.
How could you not be enchanted by gymnologising (debating naked), poon (to prop up a table by wedging something under the leg) or scamander (to wander without a settled purpose)? I could continue, as on every page something is found to delight and resonate, but I won’t, as you need to buy this book. In fact, it’s hard not to introduce you to a plethora of words, as eagerly as I would introduce you to new friends. But credit must be given to the author, as without him there’s no doubt that these words would have remained undusted on the back shelf of language. Forsyth’s chatty style will make you feel that these are words that everyone could and should use.
Forsyth is a self-proclaimed pedant, a historian, and a man on a mission to spread a healthy addiction to words. His first book, The Etymologicon (which you should also buy) was described as “a circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language”, and became a bestseller. He blogs on language and grammar, and is seemingly ever-keen to engage on issues of language. He also takes a practical approach to things. “Reality changes words far more than words can ever change reality,” says Forsyth. This is not the dogmatic pedant, ready to strike with a red pen. This is rather a benevolent confectioner, ready to hand you a delightful treat when you least expect it.
Another reviewer described The Horologicon as an excellent way to “upgrade” your English. I think this is a superb analogy, as reading The Horologicon, even if you don’t recall a single word of it afterwards, will undoubtedly make you prick up your ears a little more to the words that you do use, encourage you to start thinking about language, the basic tool which we use to survive every day.  Whether you are already intrigued by words and want to expand your treasure trove, or simply in search of an excellent and intriguing read, The Horologicon will help you while away the hours. And somewhere between the front cover and the back, you will realise that you are learning things without even realising it, that knowledge is seeping into your brain and that you feel so much the better for it.
This is not a reference book to put on your desk to impress people with. This is a delightful new companion to keep to hand at all times, and shall never be used as a poon. – Jeynes is an award-winning playwright who lectures in digital culture. She is also the editor of ThatWordSite.

This review appeared in the Cape Times in February 2013.

Find out some delicious words for “morning” here.

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