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11 people found this helpful
on November 11, 2007
This is NOT an etymological reference work (for which I recommend Ayto), but rather a mentally stimulating 300 pages for browsing.
Don't expect to find a particular word and don't try to read it all at once. Instead, keep it by the bedside or in the car and read a page or two when you have a spare minute.
It's a bit dated, and some entries are obscure or unfamiliar, but Harry Potter fans will delight to find such words as basilisk and mandrake.
There are many such non-academic books on the stories of word origins, but this one among many has somehow captured my preference. The balance of etymology and history provides many delightful little ah-hah! moments of new insights and connections.
This is best illustrated by example:
I just now randomly opened the book to page 58, where we learn that the bird 'canary' is indeed from the Canary Islands, which are so named in Pliny the Elder's account of the journey, in 40 B.C., of Juba, the Mauritanian chief, through the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar Strait) to an island overrun with dogs which he named Canaria, Latin for 'Island of Dogs' (canine).
In the next 3 pages one learns (in much greater detail):
The Latin 'cancelli', for lattice, gave us the word 'cancel' from the appearance of hash marks in the days before erasers (whose usage gave us the noun 'rubber').
Roman candidates for public office wore white as a sign of purity (like brides today), so 'candidatus' (clothed in white) gave us candidate, candor, and candid.
When Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba, the people explained they were Canibales, a dialectal pronunciation of Caribes, from which we get cannibal and Caribbean.
'Canopy' comes from the Greek konops, mosquito, for the purpose of the net it held.
One 'canters' on a horse when riding leisurely toward CANTERbury Cathedral for a picnic at the grave of Thomas a Becket, who was murdered in 1170 by his pal, King Henry II.
'Canvas' comes from the Latin for hemp, cannabis.
'Caper' and 'caprice' describe the antics of goats, the Latin for which is 'capra' (Capricorn). Elsewhere he explains how the leap of a goat, cabriolet in Latin, gave us 'cab', with taxi (like tax) indicating the necessity of paying a toll.
That's a summary of just three pages. A different sort of example from page 203 describes the amphibian once called an efeta and still today called an 'eft' in some regions. By tonal similarity, this became eveta. Since v and u were written the same, it became eueta. Just as 'due' sounds like 'dew', it became ewta, then ewte. Finally, the 'n' migrated, so that 'an ewte' became 'a newt'.
If you've read this far and enjoyed it, you'll like this book. Otherwise, forget it.
It's uncanny how often these factoids subsequently turn up in conversation or on Jeopardy the very same week you read it.