Book review: ‘The Horologicon’ by Mark Forsyth

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.

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.

9 Responses to Book review: ‘The Horologicon’ by Mark Forsyth

  1. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Following up on the quaint, seemingly niche term “rhubarbing”, I recall when working at the studios that in our animation cartoon scripts there was the occasional directive, or call for a “walla walla” effect–an atmospheric, or background mumbling within a particular scene, usually, involving some vocal crowd, or gathering of incidental characters.

    Used in both film, and early radio dramas as a specific sound effect, I found that “rhubarbing” is regarded as more of a British term, whilst in Germany it’s called a “rhabarber”. A “walla walla” seems to be the more familiar term in U.S. theater, radio and film production.

    Here’s an interesting snippet on a few approaches to creation of a “walla walla” effect from Tony Palermo, a veteran L.A.-based audio theater producer, performer, and educator.

    “I’ve heard of some producers breaking walla voices into two groups. One will repeatedly say, “peas and carrots” while the second group replies, “ugamumble”. With both these phrases mixing, the result is an unintelligible murmur. Other strategies include reciting the alphabet, but I suggest walla actors just grumble and mumble with little peaks and pauses to simulate speech. They should also laugh or cough occasionally, as the scene calls for it.”

    Apparently the rumor that Walla Walla County in Washington State was named after a local tribe of mumbling Native Americans is completely erroneous.

  2. rufaroz says:

    I hope someone will tell me when I can get this in e-book format in the United States. The DRM gremlins won’t let me buy it yet. :-(

  3. Ado_Annie says:

    Way, way back when I participated in drama club in high school we used the phrase ‘bad blood.’ It’s not quite rhubarb, but it does have the b’s and a’s and oo’s of the mumbling crowd.

    This will make a perfect gift for my friend who also adores words. Thanks for the review and the link. :-)

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    Thanks for the review of this word hoard of a book :) Stan.

    I’ve always both used and directed with the word “rhubarb” for crowd scenes. I thought it uniquely Irish as Canadians were unfamiliar with it.


  5. Stan says:

    Alex: Fascinating, thank you. There appears to be a clear transatlantic divide over the default mumble-word in theatre circles. As for other countries, Wikipedia’s (unreferenced) page says rabarber is used in the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, gaya in Japan; “other phrases are ‘carrots and peas,’ ‘watermelon cantaloupe, watermelon cantaloupe’ and ‘natter natter’ (to which the response is ‘grommish grommish’).”

    Searching for your ugamumble, I found a short page of discussion that includes the following advice:

    A potential problem to watch for is if you use the same actors for walla that you use for your primary voices, the individual voices may be recognizable. For small groups recording their projects, you may want to team up with another theater to provide the walla.

    rufaroz: Thanks for your visit. I’m sure someone at Icon Books will have the information you’re looking for.

    Annie: Bad blood bears a definite auditory resemblance to rhubarb, as you say. I wonder if it was arrived at independently, or through a chance mis-hearing! I’m sure your friend will love the book.

    WWW: You’re very welcome! My guess is that this use of rhubarb came to Ireland from the UK, which in turn may have inherited it from the continent. Maybe a reader knowledgeable of theatre history can enlighten us.

  6. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Harkening back to those seemingly interminable weekend family drives, or summer vacation outings of yore, I could see a link between the “rogitating child” and the “wheady mile”— the whiny, (rogitating ) child repeatedly asking, “Are we almost there? Are we almost there? Are we almost there?”, while long-suffering dad is ruing this “wheady mile’, having underestimated the distance to their ultimate destination.

    Moving along.

    How many times have we been eating out at a restaurant and get seated at a wobbly table that requires major ‘pooning’? The quicky solution is usually a bundle of folded-up paper napkins (a makeshift poon) wedged under the ‘offending leg’, and hopefully restoring relative stability.

    A bit ago, a friend and I were catching a quick bite at the L.A. County Museum’s lively (and crowded) cafeteria, and were obliged to sit at a table w/ a chunky ‘poon’ already in place, yet the table was curiously still quite unstable. I proceeded to remove the waded ‘poon’, and… voila!… our table was perfectly stable. My buddy and I were a bit dumbfounded, commenting as to why our table was even ‘pooned’ in the first place. (Hmm… had the floor shifted. After all, this is earthquake country. HA!)

    I call this little incident, ‘Once Upoon a Time’.(Groan)

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