The Horologicon (“book of hours”) is a reference book. Its author, Mark Forsyth, says so, as does its publisher, Icon Books, who kindly sent me a copy for review. But it is a very unusual reference book – the kind you could read from cover to cover in an evening or two, and would, willingly and happily.
Many books and websites are dedicated to unusual words, but they tend to be arranged alphabetically and glossed minimally, so it can be hard to find the words you want. The Horologicon is structured thematically, which makes it easier to locate a desired word – and you’ll see it supplemented by context and historical notes.
The book’s subtitle, A Day’s Jaunt Through the Lost Words of the English Language, is a good description of its contents. It runs according to the clock, but lightly and loosely, starting at dawn and taking us through to bedtime. Along the way we are introduced to a fabulous feast of archaic, dialectal, technical, slang, and otherwise little-known words.
For example: rogitate, which I read in the environs of a rogitating child, means “to ask again and again for the same thing, in the manner of a child who wants a biscuit”. To pingle is “to eat a little without appetite” – Forsyth found this one in a 19thC dictionary of Suffolk dialect. If, knowing ubiquitous = “existing everywhere”, you thought a word for “existing nowhere” existed nowhere, you should meet nullibiquitous.
One section is called “Lifting the sneck”, which by coincidence is the name of my blog post from August on the word sneck. But a great portion of The Horologicon’s words were pleasingly obscure and even downright mysterious to me. A zwodder is “a drowsy and stupid state of body or mind”. Ploitering is pretending to work. A wheady mile is an old Shropshire term, new to me, for a familiar experience: the “last bit of a journey that goes on much longer than you had planned”.
The rude-sounding poon, sexual slang in one guise, is also an old Winchester school slang term meaning to prop up a piece of unsteady furniture with a wedge – a poon – under the leg. Gymnologising means, marvellously, debating naked, while rhubarbing, which sounds like something else you’d do naked, is in fact “the standard word that actors use in a crowd scene when they wish to mimic the sound of general conversation”:
Nobody knows why rhubarb was picked for this purpose, or exactly when, but it’s etymologically perfect. ‘Rhubarb’ comes from the ancient Greek Rha Barbaron, which literally means ‘foreign rhubarb’, because rhubarb was a strange oriental delicacy imported to the classical world via Russia from Tibet. ‘Barbaron’ was Greek for foreigner because foreigners were all barbarians. But the important thing was that the barbarians were called barbarians because they spoke a foreign and unintelligible language, which sounded to the Greeks as though they were just saying ‘bar-bar-bar-bar’ all the time (roughly in the way that we say ‘blah-blah-blah’ or ‘yadda-yadda-yadda’). Therefore, the ancient word for unintelligible mumbling has, after a journey of several thousand years, come straight back to its original purpose.
The prose is cheerful, self-deprecating and informal, well pitched to share so much unfamiliar vocabulary. The humour doesn’t always work for me: for the essence of flânerie we “have to turn, reluctantly, to the French”. Why reluctantly? It seems an unnecessary swipe. Some constructions, like of the [X] persuasion, are overworked, while mankind is chosen over the egalitarian humankind or humanity. I spotted just one venial typo, an acceptable count given what I’m used to seeing in books.
Forsyth repeatedly suggests you can use these words to get away with all sorts of things. Not seriously, of course, but he implies no one is ever curious enough to look them up online. Many are undeniably useful, and deserve revival in their semantic niches, but the point is laboured: rypophagy (“the eating of filth”) is “terribly useful”; three pages later abligurition (“extravagant spending on food and drink”) is “terribly valuable”, and so on. I’d rather decide for myself.
The index is alphabetical but divided by chapter (Dawn, Dressing and Breakfast, Commute, etc.). So if you remember a word but not its meaning or position in the book, you’ll have to do rather more digging than a unified index would allow. Two indices would remedy this, but perhaps there were practical publishing considerations militating against such an extravagance.
Quibbles aside, The Horologicon is a sincere pleasure that will delight many a reader over the holiday season and beyond. Forsyth has combed through umpteen idioticons (“dictionary of a particular dialect or area of language”) and assembled a sumptuous smorgasbord of hidden lexical gems. It goes without saying (paralipsis) that word lovers will guttle it (eat it greedily), figuratively speaking. You can find The Horologicon in your local bookshop, or online via Icon Books.