The Etymologicon: A Humorous Guide to the Curiosities of the English Language

The Etymologicon offers up a witty dose of insight into the curiosities of the English Language.

| April 2013

The Etymologicon (Penguin Group, 2012) by Mark Forsyth is a completely unauthorized guide to the strange underpinnings of the English language. It explains: how you get from “gruntled” to “disgruntled”; why you are absolutely right to believe that your meager salary barely covers “money for salt”; how the biggest chain of coffee shops in the world (hint: Seattle) connects to whaling in Nantucket; and what precisely the Rolling Stones have to do with gardening. The excerpt below comes from the book’s first three sections. 

A Turn-up for the Books

This is a book. The glorious insanities of the English language mean that you can do all sorts of odd and demeaning things to a book. You can cook it. You can bring a criminal to it, or, if the criminal refuses to be brought, you can throw it at him. You may even take a leaf out of it, the price of lavatory paper being what it is. But there is one thing that you can never do to a book like this. Try as and how you might, you cannot turn up for it. Because a turn-up for the books has nothing, directly, to do with the ink-glue-and-paper affair that this is (that is, unless you’re terribly modern and using a Kindle or somesuch). It’s a turn-up for the bookmakers.

Any child who sees the bookmaker’s facing the bookshop across the High Street will draw the seemingly logical conclusion. And a bookmaker was, once, simply somebody who stuck books together. Indeed, the term bookmaker used to be used to describe the kind of writer who just pumps out one shelf-filler after another with no regard for the exhaustion of the reading public. Thomas More observed in1533 that “of newe booke makers there are now moe then ynough.” Luckily for the book trade, More was beheaded a couple of years later.

The modern sense of the bookmaker as a man who takes bets originated on the racecourses of Victorian Britain. The bookmaker would accept bets from anyone who wanted to lay them, and note them all down in a big betting book. Meanwhile, a turn-up was just a happy chance. A dictionary of slang from 1873 thoughtfully gives us this definition:

Turn up an unexpected slice of luck. Among sporting men bookmakers are said to have a turn up when an unbacked horse wins.

So, which horses are unbacked? Those with the best (i.e., longest) odds. Almost nobody backs a horse at a thousand to one.