As I’ve mentioned many posts ago, one of my favorite ways to waste time is to do crosswords. Earlier this week, a clue from The Daily Telegraph Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords 16 was as follows:
Much oil’s used – explanatory note required (8)
It’s a pretty standard cryptic clue with the word “used” suggesting the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” – and the fact that it’s an 8-letter word is another giveaway. So, the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” and it’s “an explanatory note.” Now, given that some of the letters were already in place as “S_H_L_U_” my best guess was scholium – but this was a new word to me so although it fit, I couldn’t be happy until I found out what it meant.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:
An explanatory note or comment; spec. an ancient exegetical note or comment upon a passage in a Greek or Latin author.
The first cited example is from a 1535 tract by George Joye entitled An apology made to satisfy, if it may be, W. TIndale, where we find “And when I shulde make scholias, notis, and gloses in the margent as himself and his master doith.” In Medieval Latin, a singular note would be a scholium and more than one would be scholia, so it looks like Joye was an early adopter of using the “s” plural for Latin words – a step toward modern English.
Scholium can be traced further back to the Greek scholion (σχόλιον ) that comes from the word scholi (σχολή ) meaning “school.” If we take a look at Liddell and Scott’s classic A Greek-English Lexicon, we find it defined as an “interpretation,” “comment,” or “short note.” Interestingly, another meaning mentioned is as “a tedious speech or lecture” – something I’m sure Classics students have been able to leverage with their teachers for many years.
The word also has a more restricted usage in the field of mathematics to refer to a note added by the actual author to illustrate or further develop a specific point. This meaning pops up in 1704 but hardly becomes a frequently used word.
And speaking of frequency, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a measly seven examples from its 450 million word sample, and of those, four refer to something called The Scholium Project, a wine-making project that began in 1999, and the other three were comments on an essay by Isaac Newton, his General Scholium, which became an appendix to his Principia or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The plural scholia fairs no better with only five examples, all from fiction books.
You might expect that such an academic word would be more likely to be found in the British National Corpus, created in the home of crusty Classicists, Oxbridge dons, and Civil Service mandarins schooled in Greek and Latin. Alas, out of 100 million words, scholium only manages one example and scholia only two.
In short, it’s a very, very low frequency word and possible found more in cryptic crossword books than actual written texts!
 Although I have a copy of Liddell and Scott sitting on the bookshelf, I often use the Perseus Search tools at Tufts University. The search page (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/search) let’s you search for Greek words and includes Liddell and Scott. Well worth bookmarking and very useful for looking for examples of Greek words in a number of classical texts.