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Book reivew: The Horologicon, By Mark Forsyth

Ahoy! A word lover's guide to English archaisms

Given a rudimentary narrative by following the course of a day, this ramble among archaisms fruitful and mouldy ranges from pantofles (it is unknown why the French St Pantouffle is associated with casual footwear) at 7am to dream drumbles (a Norfolk term for being half asleep) at midnight.

Though some disinterments are charming, such as elflocks (early morning hair tangle), quafftide (time for drinks) and wonder maid (an unexpectedly romantic Yorkshire expression for sweetheart), most merit their obscurity.

Osculable turns kissable into something clinical, while vespilone (nocturnal transporter of plague victims) is mercifully redundant. Among the vast number of synonyms for being drunk, "made too free with Sir John Strawberry" must have had people scratching their heads even when it was au courant though "drunk as a wheelbarrow" has a weavy appropriateness. While his chatty style is generally appealing, Forsyth's annotation to the 18th-century toilet euphemism "a voyage to the Spice Islands" possibly goes too far by noting that it is "particularly appropriate for the morning after a curry".

One bonus of this book is that it puts you right about obscurities favoured by certain fancy-pants novelists writing today: matutinal (early rising), quidnunc (a gossip desperate for the latest tittle-tattle), philoprogenitive (keen love for one's offspring).

A few more examples of usage would have come in handy. Forsyth notes that pixilated (not to be confused with pixelated) means "led astray by pixies" but not that it crops up in Frank Capra's Mr Deeds Goes to Town. He defines the American term mugwump as a supposedly impartial authority but not that it took a darker turn in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch.

Forsyth's most enjoyable detours include Alexander Graham Bell's insistence that "Ahoy!" is the correct form of address on the phone, and explanations of odd service communications like Wilco (short for "will comply").

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