The Horologicon // by Mark Forsyth

//published 2012//

Woohoo!! I’m officially reviewing books I read in August!  This feels like progress!!

This nonfiction book was an absolute delight.  Forsyth begins by explaining how everyone loves learning weird words, and it’s always fun to learn about words that were common in the past but have fallen out of style.  However, most dictionaries are organized alphabetically, which is great if you already know the word, but not great if you are trying to find out if a word exists to express your particular feeling or experience.  And so, Forsyth’s book is organized by the hours of the day, starting with 6a.m. – Dawn (“Alarm clocks – trying to get back to sleep – feigning illness”) meandering through the middle of the workday (“Noon – Looking as Though You’re Working: Effortlessness – sales and marketing – emails – approaching bankruptcy – asking for a raise”), and ending with Midnight – Nostos (“Making too much noise upon returning – attempting to work – undressing – arguing with spouse – falling asleep”), stopping at all the other hours in between.

Forsyth is British, which feels like it shouldn’t exactly matter, yet this is somehow delightfully British in tone, with a dry sense of humor and a wry way of twisting words and situations.  I flagged so many different words when I was reading this one and laughed out loud multiple times.

Some of the words felt like they could actually be useful –

For the moment, you can lie there [in bed] in a zwodder cursing the arrival of a new day.  … [an old dictionary] defines zwodder as: “A drowsy and stupid state of body or mind.”

Well, that sounds familiar!

Or how about “swale,” which means “windy, cold, bleak” – that could definitely be a useful word during a Midwestern winter!  And most of us know what consulting is, but how about constulting, which actually means “being stupid together”?? I see gongoozlers almost every time I drive down the highway and there is a wreck, as they are “idle and inquisitive persons who stand staring for prolonged periods at anything out of the common.”

I discovered that my dogs are experts at groking, which is “to stare wistfully at somebody while they are eating in the hope that they will give you some of their food,” and also that my husband is actually an aristologist, which is someone who “devotes their lives to the pursuit of the perfect morning meal.”

There are plenty of options for insults.  “Hydropot” was one of my favorites – it actually just means someone who is a teetotaller, but as Forsyth points out, it does have a lovely, insulting ring to it when shouted at someone.

Some of the words exist in partial form today – it’s always intriguing to me to see why we keep some words while others disappear.  For instance, while we’ve kept the word befuddled, we’ve lost the root word – which truly did exist – fuddling – which means drinking alcoholic beverages: at it’s root, befuddled actually means drunk!  Another fun one was nullibiquitous, which is the opposite of ubiquitous – so while ubiquitous means to exist everywhere, nullibiquitous means to exist nowhere, which Forsyth points out is a common problem with things like car keys when you are in a hurry.

All in all, this was just such a fun read.  I read a chapter every morning with breakfast, which was a perfect dosage of this type of book.  Forsyth was humorous and fun, but also managed to keep everything linked together and flowing by organizing the book the way he did.  If you enjoy words and wordplay, this one is definitely worth a read.