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Bagels, Bumf, and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language

Adriana Borra
p. 101-104
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Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Ix +209. ISBN: 9780198832270.

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1Simon Horobin’s book, Bagels, Bumf, and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language, is an entertaining journey into the origin of high-frequency words and the richness of the English tongue. In this wonderfully funny immersion into etymology, the author gives us both the solid knowledge of an Oxford professor and the skills of an entertainer accustomed to addressing broad audiences on the BBC Breakfast TV or Fry’s English Delight, the BBC series about the English language.

2In his very short preface, Horobin outlines his main intentions: to explain the origin of common words, to remind us of words fallen out of fashion, and to trace the changes of meanings over the centuries as well as providing possible reasons for this. The subtitle A Day in the Life of … hints at the structure of the book: Part I supplies the etymology of words used when Starting the Day, Part II of the expressions revolving around Work, Part III of everything important while Eating & Drinking, Part IV of the terminology used in Sport and Leisure, Part V of what’s on our mind in the Evening. Each part is subdivided into shorter chapters, a total of 18. The steps for Starting the Day include Getting up, Breakfasting, Getting dressed, and Commuting; the author takes us from dawn over the days of the week to tea, all the while offering additional historical information. Here’s an example: since tea reached England from China in the Mid 1600s, a rich body of compound words was coined to describe all the associated paraphernalia. And here’s another: crosswords were invented in 1913 by the English migrant Arthur Wynne and became such a common feature of American rail travel that some trains provided dictionaries to encourage this passion.

3This structure of the book is as simple as it is clever, as one can easily browse through topics of personal interest, skipping fields that aren’t – for instance, the range in the chapter Sport and Leisure includes not just common sports like rugby, golf and, of course, football, but excursions on dogs, birds and hawking. Idiomatic expressions are often added into the mix, for example, the chapter on dogs provides some delightful insight into proverbs and phrases revolving around this popular human companion. Horobin regularly includes proverbs, occasionally providing us with variants of the same proverb in other languages, when we get the equivalent of have your cake and eat it, too in Italian, Romanian, French, German and Czech, looking beyond the borders of the English tongue. He also might explain newer versions of the same proverb: the proof is in the pudding is a corruption of the older and more logical the proof of the pudding is in the eating. He touches on pronunciation disputes with words like scone or vegan or the French terms used in the haute cuisine.

4Regularly, the flow of the highly readable text is interrupted by more in-depth focus points, be it the origin of specific words like meme (introduced by the geneticist Richard Dawkins), Bluetooth (originating in the surname given to King Harald I of Denmark), or selfie (first used by an Australian man falling down the stairs drunk) or broader semantic fields like Social Media, pasta or emojis. For the latter, one does not just learn the Japanese root behind the phenomenon, e=picture and moji = character, one also follows the author tracing the history of emoticons back to Ambrose Bierce, the author of the Devil’s dictionary, who as early as 1887 suggested the introduction of the snigger point to mark irony, a horizontal round bracket expressing a smile. By not sticking exclusively to etymology and diving into other points of interest, Horobin teaches us for instance that there is a Unicode Consortium bearing resemblance to the tasks of the “Académie française”, which controls the release of new emojis, as in the case of the recent controversy on skin tones: until 2015 they were predominantly white. One also finds out that, apparently, there is an emoji version of Moby Dick called Emoji Dick, and that some emojis are used against their intended meaning: the pine decoration emoji to welcome spirits at New Year in Japan is used as an offensive gesture in the West because of its resemblance to the middle finger. Some focus points explore every-day-words, as is the case with egg, where Horobin pauses and plays around with the word, listing dozens of idiomatic expressions in just a few dense paragraphs. Recognizing “easy” etymologies like restaurer, to restore, as the root of restaurant, may also motivate one to read on, since the balance between learning something new and building on old knowledge is perfect in this book.

5In what appears to be an effortless way, Horobin points at similar roots in different languages: sombrero (Spanish sombra) and umbrella (Latin umbra), both traceable to the same meaning, shade. He corrects urban legends (“Eskimos don’t have hundreds of words for snow”), and common wrong assumptions (espresso has nothing to do with express). Before giving us the correct explanation, he entertains us with wrong, but believable, and exhilarant, etymologies: the alleged origin of marmalade being Marie malade, sick Mary, because Mary Queen of Scots was “treated” with jam. He also addresses obvious expressions like helicopter parenting and corrects scientifically wrong etymologies: malaria comes from Italian mala aria, bad air, which point to the explanation supplied before the disease was known to be transmitted by mosquitos.

6While many readers might be aware that the Italian port city Genova is behind jeans, probably fewer know that denim actually stands for de Nîmes, from the French city. Young readers might come to value etymology through his entertaining examples, finding that the pumper in pumpernickel means fart and Nickel is a pet variation of the name Nikolaus. They will easily appreciate the logic of vinegar, Old French vyn agre, sour wine and chuckle over the root of nausea, from the Greek naus, ship, where the sickness often appears, or the original meaning of gymnasium, from Greek gumnazein, to exercise naked. They might be fascinated to ascertain that jumping in the air like a goat is the root of cabriolet, that traces the noun back to the Italian capra and the French verb cabrioler, since the original meaning of the word, a two-wheeled-carriage with a hood, moved in a similar way on difficult roads. To work in a cubicle might get more appealing, if one knows it comes from the Latin cubare, to lay down, which originally described a bedroom, as in concubine, literally someone you lay down with. While it’s easy to recognize the Latin word nepos, nephew, in nepotism, few might be aware that it first described special favors granted by popes to their nephews, a stand-in for illegitimate sons. Although some origins are easy to trace if one knows Latin, manuscript, written (scriptus) by hand (manu), most are probably not aware that glamorous is related to grammar or that sabotage is traceable to sabot, a wooden shoe used by peasants to destroy an unpopular employer’s property. This is but a very small sample of what one might expect when exploring the book at hand.

7Horobin fittingly ends the day in the life of the English language in chapter 18 Staying In with an explanation of various greetings, goodbye = God be with ye, Ciao, literally I am your slave and, finally Arrivederci, the wish and expectation to see the other again in the future. The end of the book provides a list for further reading: it is not even three pages long since he gives most credit to the Oxford English Dictionary and its Historical Thesaurus.

8This thin book is fun, informative, and very entertaining. In terms of size and broad audience and in its witty tone, it reminds one both of Lynne Truss’s Eat, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation and Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED, one man, one year, 21,730 pages. In a very similar fashion to Horobin, Truss managed to make a serious (and potentially dry) topic like punctuation approachable and hilarious, and by picking favorite examples and adding contemporary context, Shea similarly provided an audience of the twenty-first century an in-depth look into the Oxford English Dictionary, without having to go through the trouble to actually study it oneself. Its playful approach to language is also resembling the highly popular German book series that started out as Bastian Sick's column Der Zwiebelfisch, which appeared from 2003 to 2013 in Spiegel Online before becoming the bestseller Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod.

9Horobin’s tone is consistently light, steeped in British humor, and full of references to modern pop culture, as when he traces the name of the white-bearded headmaster from Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, to the Latin word albus, white. Although chiefly “British”, when it comes to Horobin’s choice of examples for sport teams he regularly gives the American form of a term and looks outside Britain’s borders often enough to make this a fascinating read for anyone interested in the English language, native speaker or not, be it an intermediate or advanced learner. Anyone who grew up learning about etymology through “serious” volumes like the Oxford English Dictionary and the German Duden Herkunftswörterbuch or Kluge and the Italian DELI or Treccani will be pleasantly surprised how readable and informative this one is while providing reliable scholarly value. The two indexes (words and people) at the very end help making the book a user-friendly reference text for a writer and a valuable reading, even for a lexicographer in search of the ideal context for idioms or of vivid examples for individual entries. As such, it deserves a place in any library next to the pillars of encyclopedias and dictionaries. Moreover, each chapter of the book can serve as an ideal assignment for any language history class. Finally, it can simply be a fascinating bedtime reading for a non-academic audience, and a wonderful present to anyone who loves language, not just the English language.

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Adriana Borra, « Bagels, Bumf, and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language »Éducation et sociétés plurilingues, 50 | 2021, 101-104.

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Adriana Borra, « Bagels, Bumf, and Buses: A Day in the Life of the English Language »Éducation et sociétés plurilingues [En ligne], 50 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2022, consulté le 01 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Adriana Borra

University of Vermont (USA)

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