From cappuccino to humble pie, this writer has a taste for the origin of words

PUBLISHED: 17:23 05 December 2011

Mark Forsyth, author of Etymologicon

Mark Forsyth, author of Etymologicon


Mark Forsyth has been the writer of the Inky Fool blog since 2009. Now he tells the story of words in a book

»“I was in Rome and I went into the Cupuchin Crypt. The main thing about the place is that it is filled with skeletons – it is absolutely one of the freakiest places on earth. For several centuries, all of the Capuchin monks when they died, their bones were taken and used as 
decoration. Halfway through the crypt I was thinking: ‘Wait a minute – capucin, cappuccino, there’s got to be a connection.”

Not many people would consider the link between coffee and the Capuchins, but as perhaps etymology’s biggest fan, Hampstead-born Mark Forsyth has questions like this pop into his head all the time. It turns out there is a link between Capuchin monks and the frothy coffee. “The drink is so called because it is the same colour as the robes of the Capuchin monks,” Forsyth informs me.

The curious links in language have occupied part of Forsyth’s brain for a while now. As the author of successful blog The Inky Fool, since 2009 he has logged his ongoing investigation into the roots of many words that have popped into his head. Most recently he has compiled a book, The Etymologicon, so called because of the rarely used term coined by poet John Milton to describe a book of etymologies.

The book takes a similar form to a word-association game – each short chapter hopping from one concept to another with an intriguing etymological link. Writing it has led Forsyth all over the place, including to some rather obscure sources. “One of the things I’m proudest of in the book is that I managed to find an actual recipe for humble pie, which I got from a recipe book from 1727,” he says. “I actually got my mum to make some humble pie – it’s delicious.”

Etymology crept into 34-year-old Forsyth’s life gradually. After reading English literature and language at Oxford, he began to ask questions about where the words he used came from and never stopped. Being born and living in Hampstead, a place steeped in literary tradition encouraged this. “When you are growing up in Hampstead, it’s all around you. The word ‘zoning’ was invented on Well Walk above The Wells Tavern,” he tells me. “It first appears in the Keats poem Hyperion and Keats wrote the poem while he was nursing his brother in the room above The Wells Tavern who was dying of tuberculosis. I used to work at The Wells,” he adds. “It was my student holiday job. I worked in the room in which Hyperion was written and zoning invented.”

Forsyth’s enthusiasm for the life story of words is understandable. The interesting immigration and imperial history of the UK means that the English language is commonly known as a “mongrel”, being made up of influences from all over the world. Consequently, almost every word in the English language has a story to tell.

Forsyth is the one to tell them. He’s already planning another book for next year of useful words you have never heard of. “They’re going to be arranged by the time of day you would use them,” he says. Words like the old English word for anxiety before dawn and the word for a morbid fear of getting out of bed will be included, he tells me. “I think I have both those things,” I say. “Ah, but you never knew the word for them,” replies Forsyth.

The Etymologicon is published by Icon Books, priced £12.99

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