Journeying through Language: Around the World in 80 Words

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys a world tour of the English language courtesy of Paul Anthony Jones’s new book

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’, of course are wrong. They’re especially wrong in the case of Paul Anthony Jones’s books of language trivia, which are becoming as much of an annual event – at least at IL Towers – as Jools’s Hootenanny or eating too much Christmas dinner. Last year’s book was a year’s guide to the English language – a yearbook of forgotten words, going through the calendar from 1st January to 31st December – and sported a beautifully designed cover that made it equally ideal for putting on show on the coffee table as hiding away as a private pleasure in the smallest room. And Jones’s new book, Around the World in 80 Words: A Journey Through the English Language (Elliott and Thompson), which is a geographical rather than chronological journey through the English language, sports an equally delightful blue-and-gold cover which matches perfectly the glittering facts to be found within.

Jones – who tweets as the popular @HaggardHawks – takes us on a tour of the world, using specific locations to discuss the curious and peculiar origins of words: everything from ‘doolally’ (in Deolali in India) to antimacassar (in Makassar, Indonesia), from ‘dollar’ (from Jáchymov in the Czech Republic or Czechia) to ‘limerick’ (in … er, Limerick, in Ireland). This last, given its literary link, proved especially interesting to me. There’s apparently a piece of folk etymology doing the rounds that the word ‘limerick’ stemmed from ‘Learic’, a rather awkward-sounding adjective derived from the surname of Edward Lear, the Victorian poet and artist who did much to popularise the five-line verse form. The idea that ‘limerick’ was a corruption of ‘Learic’ is without foundation, and, as Jones mentions, the aabba verse form predates Lear by many centuries, with an early example being found among the writings of St Thomas Aquinas. The real origins of the word ‘limerick’ probably lie, unsurprisingly, in the Irish city and county of that name – although we cannot be sure why the place inspired the name for the nonsense poem. (Jones mentions an army drinking game in which participants would contribute verses to a frequently indecent or nonsensical song, with each new verse being introduced with the chorus, ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’)

Other entries in Jones’s entertaining etymological odyssey yielded some very amusing and interesting little nuggets – such as that ‘cayenne pepper’ literally means ‘pepper pepper’, or that Rita Hayworth is the reason a two-piece swimsuit is named after the Bikini Atoll, an obscure group of islands that are part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. (Why? Well, that would be telling – you’ll have to read Jones’s book to discover more. But suffice to say it has something to do with atomic bombs.) It was also a surprise to learn that Pliny the Elder, the great Roman scholar who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, was one of the first to describe the ‘remarkable spring that sparkles with innumerable bubbles’ in the Belgian corner of Gaul. Indeed, Pliny identified these bubbling waters as having health-giving properties and so pre-empted the great spa crazes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Around the World in 80 Words: A Journey Through the English Language is full of engaging and illuminating little stories about the origins of words and phrases, some familiar, some new and ripe for a revival. Apparently ‘to be like the mayor of Falmouth’ is to be ‘in the wrong mood for the current state of affairs, or to celebrate something that in retrospect is none too celebratory’. Now there’s a word for our times.

Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape by Oliver Tearle is out now in paperback from John Murray.

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