I did an event with the lovely Mark at the Highgate and Hampstead Literary Festival this summer, where we talked about blogs and books and getting blogs turned into books. Mark's first book The Etymologicon came out last year and was a #1 Sunday Times Bestseller. His new book, The Horologicon, is out this week and promises to be just as excellent.
The Horologicon (or book of hours) gives you the most extraordinary words in the English language, arranged according to the hour of the day when you really need them. Do you wake up feeling rough? Then you're philogrobolized. Pretending to work? That's fudgelling, which may lead to rizzling if you feel sleepy after lunch. It's all very charming and witty. So, pull up a seat and listen to what Mark has to say!
Mark! Welcome to the blog. Do take a seat. Actually, what would be the most interesting way to say ‘rest’ or ‘sit down’?
My favourite is soss from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. He defined it as “Soss: To fall at once into a chair”. I’ve done that a thousand times, but never had the word for it until I found it in Johnson’s dictionary.
Excellent! Let us soss. What started your love of etymology?
It’s impossible to pin it to a particular moment. It’s more that sudden rush of realisation you can get when you realise two words are connected. I remember once toddling around the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, which is one of the freakiest damned places on earth. For centuries the Capuchin monks would leave their bones to be turned into bad taste interior decoration. It’s like a branch of Habitat run by a serial killer. And my first thought was Capuchin-cappuccino – is there a connection? The answer was yes: the coffee is the same colour as the monks’ robes.
What’s your favourite word at the moment?
I’ve just discovered somatico-hedonistic, which means relating to the pleasures of the body. Not that I have many, but at least I’ll have a word when they come along. I also rather like bibliopolistically, which means “in a manner befitting a bookseller”. (Jen: I do like that one)
Tell our blog readers how your first book, The Etymologicon, came to be published.
I wandered into a book launch, got apocalyptically drunk, and cornered somebody from the publishers, saying “You’ve got to publish a book bashed on my blog”. They did.
What’s the one main thing you’ve learnt about the publishing industry that you didn’t know before you were published?
So many things. The difference between sold and sold in and trade and mass market. The strange mixture of glacial slowness and volcanic speed. The ready availability of cheap red wine.
What was the most exciting part of the publication process, for you?
A writer I know once told me that seeing your first child in the maternity ward is the second best experience in life after seeing your name on the cover of a real book. I’ve never had a child.
The Horologicon goes through a typical day, inserting old words in places you’d most likely use them. What’s your favourite part of the day, with regard to its strange words?
Very hard to say. I had great fun with the drinking and the wooing. There are some fantastic words in there like snecklifter (somebody with no money who wanders into a pub in the hope that he’ll see someone who’ll buy him a drink) and dangler (someone who follows a girl around without asking the question). But the really surprising part was the supermarket. I felt I ought to have a trip to the shops after work, but I had no idea there would be such beautiful vocabulary involved. It’s as though supermarkets were all designed by poets: the light thieves, the aisle leapers, the shelf misers, the gondolas. I’ve never been able to look at Budgens in the same way since.
How do you do your research?
For the Horologicon it’s mainly reading through dictionaries cover to cover, which I actually enjoy because I’m a very lonely, boring man. The trick is to find the good dictionaries, which are all stored in the British Library. A lot of them are actually quite short. For example, Cab Calloway’s Dictionary of Hepcat Slang is only fifteen pages or so. But there’s a lot of material in there.
You’ve travelled to various places promoting the books. You were in South Africa recently. What did you learn about South African wordage on your travels?
They call traffic lights robots down there, which I found surprising. But then I discovered that when the very first traffic lights were installed in London in the 20s, the Evening Standard called them Robot Policemen. So they’ve still got the original term, if slightly shortened. Another strange word is soutpiel, which is an offensive Afrikaans term for anyone with a British connection. Soutpiel literally means “salt penis”, because you’ve got one foot in South Africa, one foot in Britain, and your willy dangling in the Atlantic Ocean.
Ha! Excellent. What books have you read recently? Any recommendations?
For various odd reasons, I’ve been reading nothing but Nigerian books for the last month. Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, which is a fantastic story about the secret bitchiness in a polygamous marriage; and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking For Transwonderland, which is a travelogue about going back to Nigeria for the first time in ten years. Both are fantastic.
What would you like to do in the future?
Get back to fiction. The trouble with writing factual books is that you have to check that you’re telling the truth, and truth is a tedious constraint.