Archive for the ‘Greek’ Category

For those who haven’t yet discovered the amazing resource known as Project Gutenberg, let me recommend you go there now and take some time to browse through the thousands of ebooks available for free. If you want to read anything that was published over 100 years ago you can do so for free because such books are no longer under copyright. So if you’ve just seen the movie Les Misérables over Christmas, you can now follow-up by downloading Victor Hugo’s original text in French or English. Or how about catching up on classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, Dracula, The Iliad, The Odyssey, or many more.

For me, though, the pleasure also comes from finding one of the more obscure but no less important books that are usually hard-to-find or even out-of-print. Two of these that I’ve just finished are Snorri Sturulson’s The Younger Edda (or sometimes called The Prose Edda), and Myths of the Norsemen by H. A. Guerber. Both of these are accounts of Norse mythology and well-worth the trouble downloading if you want some detailed source material rather than rely on Marvel comics or self-published fantasy novels.

The Younger or Prose Edda

The Younger Edda

Now, when I first started reading The Younger Edda, I was surprised – and actually a little irritated – that it starts by talking about the Norse gods as being based on real people from history. More specifically, he argues that Odin and Thor came from the city of Troy, and that Odin lead a group of people to Scandinavia to establish a kingdom. Sturulson also engages in some etymological sleight-of-hand to suggest that the name of the Norse pantheon, the Aesir, was a corruption of the word Asia and that the gods were “men of Asi,” but this etymology has been discounted.

What Sturulson was doing here was engaging in a Middle Ages Christian tradition known as euhemerism, which is a method of mythological interpretation that regards myths as traditional accounts of real incidents in human history. From the perspective of the early Christian Church Fathers, the appeal of this method was that it gave them a way of undermining the validity of pagan gods by turning them into men rather than supernatural beings.

The word itself is an eponym i.e. it comes from the name of a person. Euhemerus was a writer who lived in Sicily around 300 BC and the author of a work called Hiera Anagraphe (Ἱερὰ Ἀναγραϕή) or “The Sacred Inscription,” which suggested that gods are simply great men from history who become deified and worshiped. In the book – or in the fragments that still survive – he relates a story of how he was on a trip across the Indian Ocean when he landed on an island called Panchaea and at a temple to Zeus came across a scroll – the Sacred Inscription. In it, the writer tells how the Greek gods were originally men whose achievements were so great that they we elevated ultimately to the status of being gods.



Most scholars believe the story to be a fabrication but that doesn’t undermine the philosophical premise that gods could, indeed, simply be “great men,” and it certainly didn’t stop early Christian writers from using this notion to “prove” the superiority of their god over the pagan ones.

Euhemerus itself means something along the lines of “happy day,” with the Greek eus meaning “happy or well” and Greek imera (ἡμέρα) meaning “day.” The –ism suffix is a common ending used to create nouns that refer to a system, belief, or ideology. The eus is found in other “happy” words such as euphoria (a feeling of intense happiness), euphemism (use of a “good” or “happy” word in place of one that has negative connotations), and eulogy (a speech of praise).

[1] Many euphemisms are used for sensitive and taboo subjects, Here are a few for ESL readers:
“pass away,” “snuff it,” “croak,” “kick the bucket” – to die
“let go,” “downsized” – sacked from a job
“powder your nose,” “answer the call of nature,” “see a man about a dog” – use a toilet
“catcher’s mitt,” “whisker biscuit,” “furback turtle” – a vagina
“bacon torpedo,” “one-eyed trouser snake,” “John Thomas” – a penis
“choke the chicken,” “spank the monkey,” “rub one off” – male masturbation
“factual shortcut,” “economical with the truth,” “strategic misrepresentation” – telling lies

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Back when I was a kid and home science didn’t include computers or the internet, and required much simpler technology – such as books – I was fascinated by astronomy. In my early teens, the tools of my trade consisted of a cheap telescope, a stand made by my dad out of some old piping he found at the factory where he worked, and The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. In fact, I still have the book, which is dated 1967 and still hasn’t fallen apart.

Moore, now Sir Patrick, is something of an English icon in the world of amateur astronomy and television. He presents a show called The Sky at Night, and has done so since April 24th, 1957, which makes it older than I am. On the March 16th, 2011, Moore presented the 700th episode, which was attended by Queen guitarist Brian May [1] and popular TV physicist Brain Cox, who was inspired to take up astronomy after reading The Observer’s Book of Astronomy. It makes you wonder just how influential that one little book has been on amateur astronomers in the UK.

For many years I would spend evenings in the back yard of our two-up, two-down terraced house, pointing my telescope over the wall and turning on my flashlight [2] now and again to check my little book. And one of the things I wanted to see was the famous Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion [3]. Sadly my telescope had all the magnification power of a pair of spectacles so I could never see the nebula as it was portrayed in Moore’s book.

Horsehead nebula

Horsehead Nebula

As I became more interested in psychology and then linguistics, I never realized how much the language of astronomy would actually help, with its many words derived from Latin and Greek. And the stories of the constellations undoubtedly contributed to my fascination with the Classics and mythology in general.
In the world of astronomy, the word nebula means;

…an indistinct cloud-like, luminous object seen in the night sky, such as a cluster of distant stars, a galaxy, or a cloud of gas or dust. Now (usually): spec. a mass of gas or dust within a galaxy, typically visible either as a luminous patch or as a dark silhouette against a brighter background.

It comes from the Latin nebula meaning fog, mist, or cloud, which is how the nebula first appeared in early telescopes. This notion of cloudiness is why it was also used in the 5th century CE as a medical term to describe the look of infected urine i.e. cloudy. In the 17th century, it was also used in ophthalmology to describe any thin-film that coated the eye.

At the same time, it began to be used to describe sunspots, or the hazy ring that surrounded a sunspot. But by the beginning of the 18th century, the word was more likely to be applied in general to indistinct, cloudy celestial objects that we not stars or planets. The Horsehead nebula was identified in 1888 and became famous because of its distinctive shape that mimics a horse’s head.

The Greek word for “cloud” or “mist” is nepheli (νεϕέλη) and in mythology, Nephele was a cloud that Zeus shaped into an image of his wife, Hera, with the intent of tricking King Ixion into seducing her. Sadly for Ixion, he was weak and  attempted to rape her, for which he was punished by having to spend eternity in Hades strapped to a burning wheel. It’s never a good idea to piss off a Greek god, especially Zeus.


Ixion on his wheel

In another story, Nephele is the mother of Phrixus and Helle, who were about to be sacrificed when Nephele sent a golden ram to carry them to safety. Ultimately, Phrixus married the daughter of King Aeetes and sacrificed the ram in honor of their nuptials. The King then took this Golden Fleece and hung it on a tree where it was found by Jason and his Argonauts.

It is hypothesized that there is an Indo-European ancestor to the word as we see variations of it in Old High German nebul meaning “mist” and Icelandic njol meaning “night.” It’s worth noting that the word nebule was also used in the 15th century to mean “cloud” or “mist.”

People with asthma and other respiratory illnesses may be familiar with device called a nebulizer, which is used to spray a fine mist of drugs in suspension directly into the lungs. The word nebulizer comes, as you might guess, from nebula.

I no longer spend time as an amateur astronomer. Occasionally I’ll sit out in my back garden and look up at the stars for a few minutes but the old passion has gone. It’s disappeared – just like a cloud in the wind.

[1] Queen fans are well aware that Brian May was part way through a doctoral program in astrophysics before deciding to give it up due to the rising demands of his life as the lead guitarist for the band. After some 35 years of creating a back-catalog of albums that is impressive by anyone’s standards, he completed his Ph.D. and became Dr. May in May 2008.

[2] Although I use the word flashlight now, that’s because I’m bilingual and speak both British and American English fluently. As a kid, I called it a torch, with torch and flashlight being something of a shibboleth that labels you as English or American. When they were invented, they were originally called electric torches to distinguish them from flaming brands but over the years, the electric piece was dropped leaving just torch.

[3] For my younger daughter’s 13th birthday, I bought her a star in the constellation of Orion from the International Star Registry. The star now bears her name and can be found in Orion at right ascension 6h 1m 40s and declination 15 degrees and 57 minutes. Those of you with clever telescopes can check this out. She asked if it really was her star, and I told her that she could go and pick it up any time she liked.

For those of you wanting to buy someone a little something special, it’s well worth going to the International Star Registry and buying a little piece of the cosmos. “But darling, now every time I look at the stars, they remind me of you…”

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I’ve mentioned before in my piece on Trannies and Puffs that I’m a long-time devotee of satellite radio. A natural consequence of this is that I am constantly stumbling across classic tracks from way back – and by “way back” I’m now talking anything in the 20th century. Only a few days ago, I was skipping though the channels and stopped when I heard George Thorogood and the Destroyers playing their 1985 classic I Drink Alone, an encomium to alcoholism and probably on the “banned” list of the AA[1] movement.

Thorogood, by the way, is a prolific performer, with over 15 albums out with the Destroyers, 5 live albums, and 6 compilation. Born in 1950, the first album, simple called George Thorogood and the Destroyers, was released in 1977. He started off as a baseball player in the minor leagues but switched to music in 1970, forming the Destroyers in 1973.

Social drinking has been around probably as long as prostitution, and both of them have proved equally hard to legislate against. Drinking alone, however, is one of the hallmarks of severe alcoholism when it happens to excess. I mention the “to excess” part because I am not averse of an evening to sip an alcoholic beverage when the rest of the family are either out or abed, but I don’t think this would classify me as alcoholic. [2]

The word dipsomania is defined by the OED as;

A morbid and insatiable craving for alcohol, often of a paroxysmal character. Also applied to persistent drunkenness, and formerly to the delirium produced by excessive drinking.

It was first defined by Alfred Swaine Taylor in the 1844 Manual of Medical Jurisprudence as;

…drunkenness. This state, which is called in law frenzy, or ‘dementia affectata’, is regarded as a temporary form of insanity.

The word is Greek in origin. The first part, dipso-, is the combining form of the word dipsa (δίψα) meaning thirst. The second piece, mania, is from the Greek μανία  meaning madness. And mania is also the base of the Greek word maenesthai (μαίνεσθαι ) meaning to rage or to be in a frenzy. In Greek mythology, the Maenads are a group of frenzied followers of Bacchus who gang up on Orpheus, tearing him apart and leaving his head and lyre to float down a river. This is possibly a warning to stay away from groups of drunken women.

Death of Orpheus by Emile Levy

Death of Orpheus, 1866: Emile Levy

In Greek mythology, dipsas (δίψας) is the name of a snake that would cause anyone it bit to have a raging, extreme thirst. Dipsas is also a character found in Ovid’s Amores (Love Poems) who is a drunken brothel keeper:

There’s a certain madame – if your interests run in this direction,
read on – I’ll tell you about Dipsas,
an old bawd who lives up to her name – she’s yet to be sober enough
to see Memnon’s mother [3] and her rosy steeds.
But she does know her magic and all the secret spells of Circe;
she can make strong rivers run backwards.
She’s an expert when it comes to herbs and the tools of sorcery;
she distills a rare poison from a mare in heat.

Dipsomania is different from polydipsia, which is used to describe a state of excessive thirst but not specific to alcohol. The poly- element is from the Greek poli (πολυ) meaning, in this case, much or “a lot of.”

As a final diversion, you might want to check out another George Thorogood song, One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, a cover of the original by Amos Milburn from 1953, and also covered in 1966 by John Lee Hooker.

[1] For my UK readers, I need to point out that the acronym “AA” in the US stands for “Alcoholics Anonymous” and not “Automobile Association.” When I first moved to the US and mentioned my wanting to join the local “AA,” the looks I got were enough to tell me that something was very wrong. The US equivalent of the UK’s AA is “AAA” or “triple-A” as it is referred to. The UK’s AA was formed in 1905 (apparently to help motorists avoid speed traps!) whereas the US’ AAA was started earlier in 1902.

[2] Once more, for my European readers, having an alcoholic drink at any time under the age of 21 will class you as alcoholic if you’re living in the US. The drinking habits that I, and all my fellow students at university, took part in as 18-year-olds would be seen as alcoholism in the US. The entire UK student population would be fined and marched off for formal counseling to “correct” their “illness.”  So if you’re under 21 and thinking of flying to California or Florida  for a wild summer holiday, remember that you can be arrested for even holding an empty can of beer.

[3] In his day, Ovid would assume that everyone would know who “Memnon’s mother” would be, but since most people experience classical mythology via movies such as Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans, I’ll reveal that she’s Hemera, goddess of the day, also known as Eos. Thus, in the poem, Ovid is saying that Dipsas is such a drunk that she’s never up in the morning early enough to see the day!

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Being one of those people who felt sad when the six-year run of the TV series Lost came to end back in May of 2010, finding shows that provided the same level of mystery has been part of my viewing habits. I don’t think of myself as much of a television watcher but there are a number of offerings with which I’m happy to spend some time. A way of measuring how interested I am in a show is to take a look at those I’ve recorded on my digital video recorder. Two currently appear their regularly; House and Alcatraz.


Alcatraz Island

I’ve watched House since the beginning, having been an admirer of Hugh Laurie since his early days of working with Stephen Fry on the A Little Bit of Fry and Laurie shows. The fact that both of us (a) are English, (b) live in the US, and (c) ride Triumph motorcycles might add to some sense of identification, but ultimately the character of Dr. Gregory House appeals strongly to my own cynical, atheist, existential viewpoint of Life, the Universe, and Everything.

As for Alcatraz, what first caught my attention was that it comes from the Bad Robot Productions stables; a company owned by J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost. The writers also include Elizabeth Sarnoff, who was a contributor to many Lost episodes. Add to that the general plot that 63 prisoners who disappeared in 1963 were “coming back” to modern-day San Francisco and you’ve got a recipe for keeping my attention.

The island itself is first documented as being named La Isla de los Alcatraces back in 1775, when the Spanish naval officer, Juan Manuel de Ayala y Aranza sailed the San Carlos into San Francisco Bay. The Spanish word alacatraz means pelican, a large-beaked bird that can be found in large numbers on and around the island.



Alcatraz in turn appears to be a modified version of the Portuguese word, alcatruz, which was used to name the bucket of a water wheel. The use of this to refer to the pelican is based on the idea that the beak of the bird is similar to a bucket or large water sack. The word can be tracked even further back to the Arabic al-qādūs meaning “the bucket.” One further step back shows us that qādūs  is related to the Greek κάδος  meaning “a jar.”

The OED suggests that there was a story that the pelican would scoop up water in its beak and fly back to its young in the desert to give them water. Wonderful as the tale might be, the beak of the pelican actually acts as a water strainer, not a carrier, so that when it scoops up water and fish, the water drains out to leave just the food. But of course, etymology is not about biology and a good story can lead to a real word.

There is an alternative to the bucket theory that is equally plausible. The Arabic for pelican was l-câdous or al-ġaţţās, which means “the diver.” There’s little phonetic change needed to change the Arabic al-ġaţţās to alcatruz. This is also the same route for tracing the origin of the word albatross, but in this case, the word alcatrus is modified by the switch of the alca element to alba, meaning “white.” Again, the sound change from alcatruz to albatruz is minimal.

This misnaming or renaming of birds (or animals) is not uncommon. The European robin is a very different bird from the American robin yet both have the same name. The common bodily feature between them is the red breast, but ornithologically speaking, they are very different. When early European settlers arrived in North America, they simply use the names they already had to new animals that appeared similar.

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We’re having something of an Indian Summer in Ohio, which doesn’t mean our Cleveland baseball team has made it through to the World Series but that although it is October, the temperature is warm enough to allow me to ride my motorcycle and wear T-shirts. It also means that the grass in my back yard is continuing to grow and has now reached a level that could end up in my being fined by the local council for breaking Property Code Ordinance 302.4 “All premises and exterior property shall be maintained free from weeds or plant growth in excess of 10 inches.”

I believe this is done to encourage a sense of order and tidiness among the city residents although it strikes me as another example of petty state interference with personal liberty. After all, I may be a lover of nature and find tall weeds attractive. It’s a curious reflection on human nature that we invent laws to force people to “control” their environment and bend nature to our own bidding. I’ve always felt that this is much more noticeable in the US, where the underlying assumption is that there are no such thing as accidents and “mistakes” are failures to control something.

Fundamentally, many Americans believe the universe is built on Order whereas I believe it is built on Chaos. When weeds grow in my garden, or ants invade my kitchen, it’s not because I have failed to maintain some sort of “order” but that such chaotic behavior is, in fact, the way things are. Trying to impose human order on a chaotic universe is a short-term fix at best but ultimately doomed to end in the collapse of our cities and the triumph of weeds and insects over the earth.

This philosophy may, of course, be little more than a feeble attempt to provide a reason for not mowing the yard.

Such agriculture activities as mowing, tilling, and sowing are at the linguistic root of the word boustrophedon, which is an adjective defined by the OED as referring to scripts that are;

(Written) alternately from right to left and from left to right, like the course of the plough in successive furrows; as in various ancient inscriptions in Greek and other languages.

The word literally means “as an ox turns while plowing.” This means you plow across the field from right to left, then turn around and plow from left to right, and so ad finem. The Greek word βου means “an ox” and στρόϕος means “turning” – hence “turning like an ox.”

Plowing a field

"Boustrophedonically? Who ate the dictionary?"

Perhaps the earliest example of boustrophedon writing is in the form of Linear B, a script discovered in 1900 by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who discovered a number of clay tablets at Knossos on the island of Crete. It wasn’t until 1953 that the script was finally deciphered by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick. They discovered that it represented an early dialect of Greek that became known as Mycenaean, named after the home of King Agamemnon, Mycenae.

boustrophedon linear b

Linear B: boustrophedon

If you look at the image above and the symbol that looks like a “K,” you will see that it on the first line it is the right way round but on the second it is mirrored. Other characters do the same thing. Here’s what boustrophedon English looks like:

boustrophedon english

Boustrophedon English

Not surprisingly, boustrophedon scripts seem to have been a fad and only a small number of such writing systems have been found.

Despite this being an old word, and certainly one that we could confidently predict to be an atypical entry in most people’s mental dictionary, it crops up in on of the Inspector Morse series of novels by the English crime writer, Colin Dexter. In 1979’s Service of All the Dead, he describes how a character walks through a church:

She then walked boustrophedon along the pews on either side of the main aisle, replacing on their hooks whatever loose hassocks had been left on the floor, flicking the pew-ledges with a yellow duster, and at the same time collecting a few stray hymn-books and prayer-books.

Although this accurately described how one would most efficiently clean the seats in a church, I can’t help thinking that there’s just a little showing off going on here by Colin. Still, he didn’t then follow up by describing how she may have walked around the church “widdershins.”

Colin Dexter's Service of All the Dead

Colin Dexter

It’s worth noting that the word has been used by some computer geeks to describe the action of a printer, where the head prints in one direction but then prints backwards in the other. And math geeks will be aware of something called the Boustrophedon Transformation, which is apparently a method of mapping one sequence against another and involves the creation of a triangular array. But alas, my love of words is inversely proportional to my love of numbers, so I’m happy to simply direct interested parties to Wikipedia’s page entitled Boustrophedon Transform.

And as a last thought: If the “-strophe” part has made you think of words such as apostrophe and catastrophe, then that’s to be expected. Both these words derive from the same Greek root. Apostrophe is from ἀπό meaning “away” and στρόϕος meaning “turning;” thus, a “turning away.” Catastrophe comes from καταστροϕή, meaning “an overturning or sudden change,” derived from κατά meaning “down” and the στρόϕος.

Barring some unforeseen catastrophe or a bizarre accident with the lawn mower, I’ll be back next week with another meandering through the world of words.

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Many years ago in my early teens, I was an avid reader of science fiction and devoured the epics of Isaac Asimov (The Foundation Trilogy), E.E. “Doc” Smith (The Skylark and Lensman series), Frank Herbert (Dune), and many others. The book publishers, Panther (a then-division of Granada Publishing Ltd.) were partly to blame because of their choice of two particularly memorable cover artists;  Chris Foss and Bruce Pennington. It’s fair to say that in those days, I did judge a book by its cover – or at least I was more likely to pick up one with an illustration by one of these two gentlemen. I still have a number of these books sitting on my bookshelf, although I try not to open them up too much for fear of them falling apart!

One of the books that Pennington illustrated was called Out of Space and Time: Vol 1 by the Californian-born writer, Clark Ashton Smith, and although the tales were more fantasy than sci-fi, I bought it. And Smith, in turn, lead me to H.P. Lovecraft.

Clark Ashton Smith Out of Space and Time

Bruce Pennington artwork

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20th August, 1890 and in his brief 46 years he produced an enormous amount of text. As well as a wealth of short stories and books, he wrote over 100,000 letters, some over 30 pages long, poems, travelogues, art critiques, journalistic pieces, and others. His primary genre is usually referred to as “weird fiction” although I prefer “gothic horror/fantasy.”

One of his most popular and enduring stories is called The Call of Cthulhu, written in 1926 and published in 1928 in the magazine, Weird Tales. Cthulhu is a creature from another world, which ends up trapped in a sunken tomb in the mythical city of R’lyeh. Apparently inspired by Tennyson’s poem, The Kraken, Cthlulhu is a large, subterranean beast described as a “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.”



After reading the story in my early teens, Cthulhu remained submerged in my unconscious until  I entered university in the late 70’s. One of the popular bands at the that time was Caravan, a particularly English band from Canterbury who were a blend of psychedelic and progressive rock. Although never a mainstream act, they were certainly a college favorite, and produced such wonderful album titles as Blind Dog at St. Dunstan’sIn the Land of Grey and Pink, Cunning Stunts (a nod to the Reverend Spooner), and Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night.

And it’s the latter album that resurrected Cthulhu in the song C’thlu Thlu, a six-minute piece that never actually uses the name Cthulhu but nevertheless tries to capture that element of the “weird” that runs through all of Lovecraft’s work. This was one of those songs we’d listen to late at night as we would down both the beer and the lights.

My interest in psychology meant reading Freud (extensively) and Jung (heretically), and in his book, Man and His Symbols, Jung uses the word chthonic to refer to both the mythical realm of the underworld and the gods and goddesses therein, and the psychological realm of the darker side of the Unconscious.

So where does chthonic originate? And more important, how do you pronounce it?

The Greek word kthos (χθών) or kthonos (χθονός) means “earth,” with kthonios (χθόνιος) meaning “of the earth” or “beneath the earth.” It first makes a written appearance in 1882 in a book by Charles Francis Keary called Outlines of Primitive Beliefs Among the Indo -European Races, where he says;

The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.

Joseph Shipley, in the classic The Origins of English Words, traces the word back to the the Indo-European*ghdhem meaning “of the earth, and a cognate of the Persian zamindar, which means “ground.” He also tells the tale of Erysichthon, a King of Thessaly who chopped down trees in a sacred forest dedicated to the goddess Demeter in order to build a huge feasting hall. As punishment for such impiety (chopping down sacred trees is always a no-no in mythology) Demeter inflicted him with an insatiable hunger that only ended when he ate himself! The name Erysichthon means “tearer-up of earth,” the “chthon” element being the “earth” reference.


Erysichthon's table

So what about the pronunciation? Well, Greek, both ancient and modern, is one of those languages that allows a plosive and fricative sound to live together happily at the beginning of a word, whereas English doesn’t like this at all. Thus, Greek words starting with “ps” (psomi=bread or psari=fish), “ts” (tsai=tea) and “ks” (ksenos=foreigner) are all perfectly normal, but in English, such clusters can only appear in the middle of words or at the end. The tendency for English speakers is therefore to simplify such words by dropping one of the sounds.  Hence the reason we pronounce the words psychology and mnemonic as /saɪ’kɒlədʒi/ and /nə’mɒnɪk/ with the initial “p” and “m” dropped.

But with the Brits being a scholarly bunch, steeped in the history of Empire and the university tradition of learning the Classics, chthonic kept its original form and the OED enshrines its pronunciation as /’kθɒnɪk/, with the tongue-twisting cluster up front. The more relaxed and much younger Americans opted for the dropping of the spurious /k/ sound and recommends the simpler /’θɒnɪk/.

Either way, it’s certainly one of those words that deserves an outing now and again, so try slipping it into your next email to the boss.

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The recent kerfuffle regarding the non-burning of the Koran is an object lesson in the more depressing aspects of human nature. Ironically, one of the very things that makes us human and distinct from animals that simultaneously makes us intolerant and aggressive. That’s the ability to use symbols.

The Koran

A Koran

In modern usage, the OED defines a symbol as:

Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else (not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion, or by some accidental or conventional relation); esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition.

Language is an example, par excellence, of symbolic behavior. When we use the word “dog” to stand for a four-legged animal that barks and wags its tail when happy, the word itself is just an arbitrary collection of sounds. There’s no inherent relationship between the word and the object it represents, which is why different languages can have different words for the same thing. Thus, the French have a “chien, ” the Spanish have a “perro,” the Turks have a “kopek,” and the Chinese have a “gau.”



In a different example, very young children play with boxes and use them as cars, boats, houses, hats, and any other number of objects, simply because they can. Little Frank can use a stick as a sword, an airplane, a wand, or a guitar; a chimp uses a stick as… well, a stick. Some folks might want to debate this on the basis that some studies seem to suggest that chimps demonstrate evidence of symbolic understanding, but it’s hardly overwhelming and of limited magnitude when compared to the almost limitless symbolism that rattles through the brain of homo sapiens.

As an extension of the ability to use objects symbolically is the tendency to create taboos – and more specifically, taboo objects. This is no more obvious than in religious mythology. For Christians, a small piece of bread – called a “host” – can be magically transformed into the body of Jesus Christ. For Catholics, abuse of a consecrated host is viewed as being a mortal sin, which ranks as an 8 or 9 on the “Sin Scale” and can lead to the desecrator ending up spending the whole of eternity burning in the flames of Hell: All for messing with a piece of bread. In less enlightened times, offenders could be tortured and beheaded for host desecration – which is relatively mild when compared with eternal damnation.

John Martin, 1841, "Pandemonium"

And pity the poor pig, an animal that for no particular reason whatsoever is shunned by Jews and Muslims as being unclean. Not for them the guilty pleasure of a freshly made hot bacon sandwich with a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Meanwhile, for Hindus, anything that comes from the humble cow is to be avoided. Other taboo foods include bats (non-kosher), cats (too cute), fungi (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness say they “excite passions”), rabbits (OK for Sunni Muslims, not for Shias), lettuce (according to one branch of Islam, the lettuce is evil), and humans.

The thing about taboos is that they carry with them an awful lot of emotional baggage. Not only do humans have the capacity to create symbols but they also imbue them with powerful feelings. Symbols are also, for the most part, culturally specific, and difficult to understand from an outside perspective. Although it’s easy to pass them off as “primitive” or “stupid,” even the “sophisticated” cultures have their quirks. Your average American would almost choke if you suggested putting cat or horse on the menu at the local bar, yet other countries have no taboo against it. After all, what’s the difference? Why should we be OK to eat pigs and sheep and cows but balk at horses?

And how about flag burning? Take a large piece of cotton, paint some stripes in red and white across it, and them dab some stars in the corner. Now set fire to it. It’s just painted cloth, right? But it was only four years ago that there was a vote on whether or not to criminalize the burning of the US flag. So how “civilized” or “sophisticated” is a country that wants to lock people up for setting fire to something akin to a bed-sheet? And next time you’re on a trip that involves flying to a hotel, try asking to sit in seat 13 or book a room on the 13th floor. There’s a good chance you’ll be unable to do either of them because even in the 21st century, the number 13 is taboo in many countries.

It’s really, really, really hard for people to see past symbols. Once a symbol takes on a taboo status, all reason goes out of the window and the emotions take over. Be it a piece of colored cloth, a collection of pieces of paper bound together, or a ham sandwich, someone, somewhere, is going to hold it in reverence and even be prepared to kill others to maintain that sacred state.

In fact, the word symbol was originally used strictly in a religious sense to refer to;

A formal authoritative statement or summary of the religious belief of the Christian church, or of a particular church or sect; a creed or confession of faith, spec. the Apostles’ Creed.

This use can be traced back to Saint Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, who was born around 208 CE. He used the Latin word symbolum to refer to the baptismal creed. This was because accepting baptism was a mark that differentiated a Christian from a heathen, and the word symbolum means “mark.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage

In fact, it can traced further back to the Greek σύμβολος meaning “mark,” “ticket,” or “token.” This in turn comes from the prefix, sym-, which means “together” followed by bolos meaning “a throw.” So the underlying notion is of things thrown or put together, which can then be compared using a token. This evolved over the centuries to refer to a token (or symbol) that can be compared with another object (or sign).

In 1590, Spenser used the word in The Faery Queen in its current sense of a representation:

That, as a sacred Symbole, it [sc. a blood-stain] may dwell
In her sonnes flesh.

Shakespeare also used it in Othello in the sentence, “To renownce his Baptisme, All Seales, and Simbols of redeemed sin.”

Yet paralleling this was its continued use to refer to any object regarded as sacred, especially the bread and wine of the Christian eucharist as representing the body and blood of Christ:

After the prayer..the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, spiritual, and real manner. (John Evelyn, 1671, Letter to Father Patrick).

And from 1620, the word was already being used to refer to any “…written character or mark used to represent something; a letter, figure, or sign conventionally standing for some object, process, etc.” (OED). Certainly in the worlds of physics and mathematics, the prime meaning of symbol is as an element in an equation.

Bu the psychological reality of symbolism is so ingrained into ourselves that we forget it’s there. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to identify something as symbolic is that symbols can become transparent and, in a sense, disappear. And when a symbol is also taboo, it is extremely hard to see past it, which in turn makes it almost impossible to diffuse the emotional component. Knowing and understanding that the “Old Glory” is in reality a bundle of colored threads doesn’t stop some people from feeling angry when it’s burning. And knowing that a Koran is just a bundle of printed pages doesn’t stop some people from going on a riot and killing people.

But cheer up! It is possible – with a little willpower and perception – to see through symbolism, and even ignore it altogether. Once, when asked about what his The Old Man and the Sea “meant,” Hemingway said;

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.

And Freud came out with the classic;

Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.

Sigmund Freud

Sometimes, a cigar...

Wordle: symbol - etymology

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