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Wed, 09 Nov 2011 09:36
Today we have a guest blog post from etymologist Mark Forsyth
I find myself recommending the Book Depository a lot recently. It's the free shipping. Every time a friend of mine phones up from Hong Kong or Belize or New Caledonia asking where they can get hold of a copy of The Etymologicon I direct them straight here without once stopping to ask myself why the hell all my friends seem to prefer being on the other side of the world from me.
Anyway, as the Book Depository is so good at delivering to these flung-far places, I think it only fair to point out that they deserve the free shipping, they've earned it. After all, they never demanded a penny for all the words that they gave to England for absolutely nothing. So here is a brief sample and selection of words from some of the more recondite states whither the Book Depository delivers.
For example, I have never been to Samoa, but the Book Depository undertakes to deliver a copy of my book there, if requested. And I know, merely from having wasted my youth with dictionaries that we share a word with them. Captain Cook was sailing around the South Seas when he happened to ask the natives what their body art was called. They replied that it was a tattoo. On other subjects they were much less forthcoming. These subjects they called taboo.
Madagascar is home to one of my favourite creatures, etymologically speaking: the Indri. An eighteenth century French naturalist called Pierre Sonnerat was hiking through the Malagasay jungle discovering new species when his guide pointed at a funny little creature and shouted 'Indri'. Sonnerat whipped out his notebook, described the creature and noted that it was called the Indri. It still is. However, had he been familiar with the native tongue, he would have known that in Malagasay indri just means 'Look at that!'
And finally, the Vatican. Did you know that the Vatican has the highest crime rate per capita of any country on earth? Well you do now. It's also the home of the original Devil's Advocate, who is more properly known as the Promotor Fidei, or promoter of the faith. The job of the Devil's Advocate was to find good reasons that somebody shouldn't be made a saint, and thus stop any awkward scandals when a newly beatified fellow turned out to be a scoundrel. The French for advocate is avocet, which is also the French word for avocado. I think this means that across the channel the Promotor Fidei would be popularly known as Satan's Avocado, an idea that amuses me more than I can say. They're unrelated, though, advocate and avocado. The latter, as I point out in The Etymologicon, comes from the Aztec word for testicle; and, as I'm incurably puerile, I find that even better.
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