Monday 8 October 2012

The Etymologicon in the Americas

Dear American and Canadian readers, The Etymologicon is now out in your continent, wearing a ten gallon hat and heading westward across the vast untamed prairies. It's even got a brand new jacket suitable for the tastes of your young and vigorous countries. 

Just to prove that I'm not making this up, here's an interview with me in the Chicago Tribune, and a mention in the New York Times, and an extract in the Huffington Post. It's published by Berkley Penguin. Penguins being biologically from Antarctica, and etymologically from Wales*. 

File:Wormius' Great Auk.jpgPen is the Welsh word for head, thus Penzance in Cornwall is the Holy Headland. Gwyn is the Welsh word for white, as in Gwendolyn, which just means white in the same where that Candida does in Latin. So when Welsh sailors first saw the Newfoundland Auk, with a white patch on his head, they decided to call it a whitehead or penguin

The Newfoundland Auk promptly became extinct. The name would have died with it, were it not for the fact that the auk looks very like the unnamed birds that were pottering around at the south end of the planet. That picture on the left is an auk, so you can see the similarity. 

Thus the Welsh for white head managed to make it to the other side of the world. Berkley, on the other hand, means clearing in a birch forest - leah was the old English for clearing, and beorc was birch. So Berkley Penguin is, etymologically speaking, a great auk standing in a birch forest.

I've searched, but can find no illustration for this. 

Anyway, run to the shops and order your copy now. Or click on this link and buy it from

So stylish

*The following is all best theory, but sometimes disputed.


  1. "25-year-old author"? What have you been telling them?

  2. My fault. They asked me my age and I said that I was 25, not counting weekends. That's utterly true, but I was probably being much too obscure.

  3. Congrats on your US d├ębut! I too have had the experience of having my UK book published under a new cover here, by Penguin (no birch woods for me, alas) -- but I do miss the UK cover! Where have whimsy and ornament gone? Apparently we here are blockheads in need of block letters, and sans serif too!

  4. And Berkeley Hunt is cockney rhyming slang...

    Laurie -

  5. Interesting really how your odd welsh word slips itself into other languages..
    Can you explain the similarities between Welsh and French?

  6. A New World Testament: I came across your book "Etymologicon" at a bookstore (that rare phenom - an actual brick and mortar edifice!) in Washington, DC, while I was looking (in vain) for a copy of David Weinberger's "Too Big To Know." Decidedly joy-filled at finding your book, I hunted you down across the vast expanses of the fabled internet in order to consume your wit and wisdom regularly. Hoo-AH!