Friday, 13 January 2012

The Etymologicon

Last year I posted a bloglet in which I copied a passage I liked from the book I was reading at the time. Because it made for such an easy bloglet, and because I find this new book genuinely fascinating, I have decided to do it again.

So, the book in question this time is entitled The Etymologicon: A circular stroll through the hidden connections of the English language. I realise the name alone will probably be enough to send some of you to sleep but I implore (yep, implore) you to read on. I guarantee you won't be bored and, who knows, maybe you'll want to buy the book yourself.

Title: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language
Author: Mark Forsyth

Only £5.84 from Amazon

Gambling in medieval France was a simple business. All you needed were some friends, a pot, and a chicken. In fact, you didn't need friends - you could do this with your enemies - but the pot and the chicken were essential.
First, each person puts an equal amount of money in the pot. Nobody should on any account make a joke about a poultry sum. Shoo the chicken away to a reasonable distance. What's a reasonable distance? About a stone's throw.
Next, pick up a stone.
Now, you all take turns hurling stones at that poor bird, which will squawk and flap and run about. The first person to hit the chicken wins all the money in the pot. You then agree never to mention any of this to an animal rights campaigner.
That's how the French played a game of chicken. The French, though, being French, called it a game of poule, which is French for chicken. And the chap who had won all the money had therefore won the jeu de poule.
The term got transferred to other things. At card games, the pot of money in the middle of the table came to be known as the poule. English gamblers picked the term up and brought it back with them in the seventeenth century. They changed the spelling to pool, but they still had a pool of money in the middle of the table.
It should be noted that this pool of money has absolutely nothing to do with a body of water. Swimming pools, rock pools and Liverpools are utterly different things.
Back to gambling. When billiards became a popular sport, people started to gamble on it, and this variation was known as pool, hence shooting pool. Then, finally, that poor French chicken broke free from the world of gambling and soared majestically out into the clear air beyond.
On the basis that gamblers pooled their money, people started to pool their resources and even pool their cars in a car pool. Then they pooled their typists in a typing pool. Le chicken was free! And then he grew bigger than any of us, because, since the phrase was invented in 1941, we have all become part of the gene pool, which, etymologically, means that we are all little bits of chicken.

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