I’ve been away. Temporarily I was free.

I have seen other writers, on FaceBook, declare they are leaving for weeks/months/years/permanently (delete as appropriate) in order to work on a manuscript. I always wonder what on earth they’ve been doing on FaceBook to prevent them writing.

Not me. I am immune (except when it comes to Scrabble).

But I realised I was in fact enslaved when I came home from a week’s holiday. It must have been gradually getting worse. After unpacking, I spent six hours working through emails and messages on social networks (I haven’t finished yet). One hundred and twenty-five people said Happy Birthday to me on FaceBook. There was a party on my FaceBook page – in my absence.

And for the first time, although there was a bunch of mail behind the door (to use an American expression), it wasn’t a huge pile. The postal pile was much smaller than the equivalent personal part of the email. And I like letters.

I am not reading less than I did. I am reading more. But the more I am reading is an online more, and it’s in bits and pieces, updates and mini-blogs, quotes of the day and offers from websites, links and jokes, pictures and comments.

Away from all this, last week I was reading books.

I read, for example, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, which not only looks magnificent with its red (embossed with gold) cover, but is hugely entertaining. It’s the sort of book which is deeply annoying for everybody but the reader because of the amount of chuckles and ‘you must listen to this’ announcements.

It was Mark Forsyth who educated me in the origin of slaves. I now know about Basil the Bulgur Slayer, one of many who contributed to the low status of the Slavs: “When they weren’t being slain by Basil in the south they were being subjugated by the Holy Roman Empire in the north and forced into lives of servitude. So many Slavs were defeated and oppressed that the word Slav itself became interchangeable with forced labourer, and that’s where we got the word slave.”

But the deep satisfaction of Forsyth’s book is the never-ending connections. One word leads to the next. A medieval Italian courtesy greeting was ‘Sono vostro schiavo’ – I am your slave (a bit like ‘your humble and obedient servant’), and this became shortened to ‘schiavo’ and this corrupted itself into ‘ciao’. For some reason, it’s enormously satisfying knowing this. It reminds me of when I first studied Latin at school. It was a sort of revelation to me. I became a complete pest at home, constantly announcing which words derived from what.

Which reminds me of the time my friend Kate was sitting sunbathing outside our school. This was strictly against school policy but she was with other girls on the flagstones under the windows of the biology lab. They had escaped – after an exam, I think – to a place where they couldn’t be spotted. They could, however, hear the class teacher, whose name was Mr Trueblood (really) instructing the class inside. He was talking about menstruation.

I know it seems hard to believe that a Mr ‘Trueblood’ was talking about menstruation but I have not made this up. Worse still, he announced that ‘menstruation’ comes from the Lation word mensa, meaning month. Kate was studying Latin with me. It was all she could do to restrain herself from leaping up and shouting through the window ‘No, you idiot. Mensis means month. Mensa is a TABLE!’

Where was I? Yes, the derivations of things. Reading Forsyth’s book I was enthralled. But wait – ‘enthralled’ is connected with ‘thrall’, and a thrall is no more than a slave, from the Old Norse þræll meaning a person who is in bondage or serfdom. And who were the thralls? Yes – I’ve just checked on Wikipedia. They were Scandinavian. They made specially good thralls because they were pagan, and Christians around 1100 A.D. were allowed to enslave pagans, of course.

So all slaves were Eastern European, and slavery is no more than a state of enthrallment. Or thralldom maybe.

And the fact is, I am both enslaved and enthralled by my connection to the world wide web. I marvel at the fact that I just looked up ‘thrall’ for myself. I can check and double check. This is fun.

But now there’s another blog I have to keep up with. Mark Forsyth at Inky Fool. And there I see he’s just been at the Edinburgh Book Festival, though I missed him because I was on holiday. But there is a podcast of him, though it’s nowhere near as good as reading his book. Or the previous entries on his blog. Talking of which. . . .

Oh hell.

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