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

Read Full Post »

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…”

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Asking people about their favorite books, music, and movies is always a fun way to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis, Freudian or otherwise. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) used the concept when it started the show Desert Island Discs back in 1942. Its originator, Roy Plomley, hosted the show for 43 years until his death in 1985 at the age of 71. The concept was, and still is, that the guest had to choose eight pieces of music that they would want to have while cast away on a desert island.

Desert Island Discs

The show is still being broadcast by the BBC and is the second longest-running radio show in the world after Nashville’s Grand Old Opry, which has been on the air since 1925. As a sign of the times, Desert Island Discs is now available as a regular podcast, tipping its hat to the MP3 generation.

I’ve tried to identify my own eight but failed miserably. Not even eighteen. The best I’ve been able to do is come up with as a “Top Eight albums” – and even that changes with my mood. However, in that eight is usually Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, his first solo offering distinct from his residency with Steely Dan. Released in 1982, Fagen described it as a collection of songs about;

“…certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.”

Fagen has since used his personal visions in 1993’s Kamakiriad, and his 2006 offering, Morph the Cat. Not one to rush out new albums, the current turn out rate suggests he’ll release the next one around 2019 – pre-order now to avoid the download rush!

Donald Fagen, The Nightfly, 1982

What’s etymologically interesting is that the use of the word nightfly to describe the character in the album’s title song seems to be the first instance of being applied in such a fashion.

It’s first ever recorded use is in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2:

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush’d with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull’d with sound of sweetest melody?

Here the word has the literal meaning of, as the OED puts it, “a flying insect which is active at night.” Ultimately this comes in the first part from night, a tremendously old word that appears in many of the Germanic languages (c.f. Old Frisian/Middle Dutch/Middle Low German nacht, Old Saxon and Old High German naht, and Old Icelandic nátt.) Classical Latin gives us noct and nox (c.f. nocturnal meaning “at night), and Ancient Greek has nύξ meaning “night” and personified as Nyx, goddess of the night and mother of Thanatos (death) and Hypnos (sleep).

Ultimately, we can trace the word back to Sanskrit nak or nakt, and digging even further back, Shipley (1984) and Mallory and Adams (2006) suggest the Proto-Indo-European form, *nekut, meaning “dark,” “night,” or even “death,” and “die.”

In turn, fly comes from Old English fléoge, a winged insect, cognate with Middle Dutch vlieghe, Old High German flioga, and probably ultimately from the verb *fleugan, meaning “to fly.”

The word was transferred to the angling world in 1799 to refer to an artificial fly used in night fishing. The meaning remains to this day, as demonstrated in Auckland, NZ’s Sunday News, 23rd June, 1996; “Select night flies that are the shape of crayfish, cockabullies, smelt or any locally common surface food.” [A cockabully is a small New Zealand fish, the word itself possibly coming from the Maori word, kokapuru, meaning “small fish.”]

The Ginger Pearl - A night fly

In Donald Fagen’s song, the word appears in the following context:

I’m Lester the Nightfly
Hello Baton Rouge
Won’t you turn your radio down
Respect the seven second delay we use.

The meaning here is closer to that of a night-flyer, which, according to the OED, refers to “a person who or animal (esp. a moth) which flies by night.” The word is first recorded in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, in the sentence;

I knew one fellow, that while I was a prisoner in Newgate, was one of those they called then Night-fliers,..who by connivance was admitted to go abroad every evening.

In this context, it refers specifically to a prisoner who was released each evening – which sounds something of a recipe for trouble – and in return for freedom would reveal the details of the activities of other criminals. An earlier stool pigeon?

With the invention of the airplane, pilots became night flyers: “What the night flyer needs… is the power to change his vision quickly from the illuminated cockpit and instrument panel to the outside world and back again.” Science, 10th March, 1939.

Horror writer, Stephen King, penned the short story, the Night Flier, a story that involves a man who flys a plane by night but also a vampire – another type of “night flier.”

Clearly Fagen uses the word – unhyphenated – metaphorically, as Lester is the DJ who works the night shift, playing Jazz and listening to calls from the sleepless, the lonely, and the disaffected.

And the album is on my top eight list. So go ahead, Dr. Freud, make of that what you will.

Mallory, J.P. and Adams, D.Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press: New York.

Shipley, J.T. (1984). The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Words. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore.

Wordle: nightfly -etymology

Read Full Post »

Given a choice between investigating a word’s origins and going for a ride on my motorcycle, the weighting is heavily determined by the weather. So while the sun shines down in NE Ohio and the temperatures stick around the 80’s, there’s little mystery as to why there’s been a delay in the weekly posting. This, of course, is the correct decision to make because life is’ after all, about experiences and not writing about experiences. As Nikos Kazantzakis says in his masterpiece, Zorba the Greek;

I felt once more how simple a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And all that is required to feel that here and now is happiness is a simple, frugal heart.

In the movie – a rare case of where a film actually does justice to a novel – you get to see how the English, bookish, academic character played by Alan Bates learns a valuable lesson from Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, about what it means to be alive. Those of you who have neither read the book nor seen the movie are in for a treat when you finish reading this and rush out to buy them (or order them online – whichever is your preference.)

Zorba teaches Basil

My motorcycle is a Triumph Bonneville America, perhaps not an unusual choice for an English ex-pat, I suppose. It is, without doubt, one of the most stylish bikes on the planet – although I may be a little biased. I can guarantee that whenever I park up, someone is going to come over and talk to me and tell me how much they like it. I’d like to say it was a “chick magnet” but it’s more of a “geezer magnet,” so the typical discussion revolves around engines, torque, valves, and other items about which I have no clue. To paraphrase Star Trek‘s Leonard McCoy, “I’m a linguist, dammit, not an engineer.”

2003 Triumph Bonneville America

The word triumph is of Greek origin, θρίαμβος, and means a hymn to Dionysus sung in processions to his honor. Dionysos, who was to become Bacchus for the Romans, was the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Well, in the sense that he was in charge of wine, agriculture, fertility in nature, and the Greek stage.


The Romans took the notion of the “hymn of praise” to use the word as follows:

The entrance of a victorious commander with his army and spoils in solemn procession into Rome, permission for which was granted by the senate in honour of an important achievement in war.

The word appears to have slipped into the Latin via Etruscan, according to Liddell and Scott, authors of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, first published in 1819. From there it morphed into Old French triumpher, the Provençal triomfar, Spanish triunfar, Portuguese triumphar, and Italian trionfare. So all in all, quite a popular and useful word.

Triumphant entry: Spring by Alma-Tadema

There’s an early use of the word by King Aelfred in 893, but we can see it in Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite (1374) where he says. “With his tryumphe and laurer corovned thus… Let I this noble prince Theseus Towarde Athenes in his wey ryding.” By the 16th century, it had slipped across the border from noun-hood to verbiness;

I tryumphe for a conquest or a victorye gotten… It was a marvaylouse syght to se the Romanynes tryumphe, whan they had the vyctorie of their ennemyes. (Palsgrave (1530), Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse).

At around the same time, specifically in 1529, a priest named Hugh Latimer gave a controversial Christmas sermon on playing cards. Although this was a pastime sanctioned by the church at Christmastime, the Reformers were antagonistic, even though Latimer used the metaphor to teach a spiritual truth based on the triumph or trump card. In fact, he uses the words triumph and trump synonymously. Compare the following:

Heartes is trumpe. {emem} Cast thy tromp vnto them both, and gather them all three together.

And then;

Lette therefore euery Christian manne and woman playe at these cardes, that they maye haue and obteyne the triumph; you must marke also that the triumphe muste apply to fetche home vnto hym all the other cardes, whatsoeuer sute they bee of.

So the word trump, as used in cards, comes from the word triumph. Incidentally, the Sermon on the Cards may well be the original precursor of the popular Text Ritter country song from 1948, The Deck of Cards. This tells the story of a soldier arrested for playing cards but who talks his way out of the charge by saying that the deck is his bible, with the Ace representing God, the two the Old and New Testaments, the three Holy Trinity, and so on.

Deck of cards

Other noun variations are triumphator or triumpher – one who triumphs; triumphress – a woman who triumphs; triumphalism – the sense of pride after achieving a triumph; and triumphancy – the state of being triumphant. Although these are not likely to be tripping off the tongue on a regular basis, they do illustrate how the word has blossomed since its early days.

As well as sitting happily in the noun and verb camps, triumph‘s promiscuity extends to its sleeping with adjectives and adverbs. The popular triumphant can be traced back to the late 15th century, and it’s less frequently used analog, triumphal even further back to the beginning of that century. Triumphous pops up at around the same time, and by sticking the adjectival -ing on the end, triumphing appears as yet another option in the earlier 16th century, with poet William Dunbar offering “O hye trivmphing peradiss of joy (Poems, 1500-1520). Why, there’s even the existence of triumphable (capable of being triumphed over), but a quick Google search reveals a ghit score of 106, of which most are in sentence pairs where one ends in triumph and the next starts with able (“…triumph. Able…)

In terms of adverbs, you can do things triumphantly, or even triumphally, as evidenced in an article from the Miami Herald in 1984, where we read, “Mike Zeck returns triumphally as… the local kid who actually did break into the business.”

It’s heating up outside. The sun is still shining. My bike is waiting. Write no more.

For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive. D.H. Lawrence

Read Full Post »

The much-anticipated – and some might say hyped – World Cup match between the US and England was always, from the English perspective, a “no-win” event. After all, in the grand scheme of things, England’s winning would be seen as expected. Anything other than a win would be viewed from the American perspective as a win, where win is defined as “not losing to the Brits.” So when the match ended up as a 1-1 draw, there was the inevitable wailing and gnashing of teeth in pubs across the “green and pleasant land,” while US commentators had a hard time avoiding smugness – and by “holding back” I mean “not holding back.”

US vs. England 2010

The special relationship between the US and the UK has always been less of the English “Greeks” to the American “Romans” but independent child to rapidly aging parents. Every year on the 4th of July my American colleagues feel it necessary to remind me how they “whooped British asses” and created a better nation, while I feel obliged to remind them that many of those actually fighting for independence were British and that a significant number of folks living in the UK were also for US independence. There has always been something of an anti-English element in America, which is being sorely tested at this moment in time with the devastating oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the culprit of which being BP – British Petroleum. Never mind that BP is an international company, with a sizable number of American investors, American employees, American managers, and American business relationships. As of 2009, 40 per cent of BP’s shares were owned in Britain, with a comparable 39 per cent owned in the US. It also has six British directors and six American, and employs 22,000 Americans against only 10,000 Britons.[1]

BP: Bringing Pain - Burning Petroleum

Nope, the big thing here is that the word British is right up there, allowing for the upsurge of latent anti-English feelings to resurface. The truth is that is doesn’t matter if the oil company responsible is British, American, Saudi Arabian, or Elvish; oil is spewing out into the sea and the Blame Game can wait until after a solution has been found.

So what better time to take on the Old Country via through the international medium of soccer -or as the rest of the world calls it, football. It’s also an opportunity to whip out the cudgels to fight on that other Anglo-American battleground – the English Language. Hardly a day goes by in the world without someone in the UK bemoaning the devastating effect those ugly Americanisms are having on the purity of English, while/whilst the US literati (an oxymoron for some little Englanders) use the same argument to promote the vitality and vivacity of the New Linguistic World order, with American English now being seen as the true heir to the language, with the fuddy-duddy whinging poms being stuck in a time warp, never having been able to get over the loss of the Empire.

It’s this on-going rivalry that fuels the squabbling over the word soccer, used primarily by Americans to describe a game played by the rest of the world in a different manner to their own game called football. But is the US predilection to use soccer in opposition to everyone else just another show of imperialism or a historical linguistic expedient? To understand this, we first have to forget the word soccer and go back to football.

Typical English Football Team

The ancient Greeks were not averse to a spot of knocking a ball around as a form of exercise and entertainment. The game, ἐπίσκυρος, was first mentioned in the writings of Antiphanes, and involved two teams of 12 players with a ball. The word ἐπίσκυρος is itself a variation on ἐπίκοινος, which Liddell and Scott translate as “common to many,” i.e. the ball is common to all the players.

Socrates Centre Forward

In the 2nd century AD, the writer Pollux described the game as follows:

This is played by teams of equal numbers standing opposite one another. They mark out a line between them with stone chips; this is the skuros on which the ball is placed. They then mark out two lines, one behind each team. The team which secures possession of the ball throws it over their opponents who then try to get hold of the ball and throw it back, until one side pushes the other over the line behind them. The game might be called a Ball Battle.

The Romans played a ball game called harpastum, the word being a romanization of the Greek ἁρπαστόν, from the word ἁρπάζω, which means “to grab,” which suggests some handling of the ball was expected.

The specific word football kicked off in English way back in 1424 when it appeared in a legal document issued by King James I of Scotland – not to be confused with King James I of Cleveland, OH, who also goes under the name of basketball player LeBron James. The act itself appears to have come about because too many wastrels were spending time playing the game instead of doing things the King felt more productive, so the edict was issued that “the King forbids that any man play at the ‘fut bal’ under payne of fines.” King Edward II also issued a ban, this time under “pain of imprisonment” – clearer he felt a little more strongly about it.

As might be expected with such an old game, over time, many variations on a theme began to appear, giving rise to different types of football. Thus is became necessary to distinguish the various forms by using some type of adjective to mark the specific set of rules being used. In England, for example, a particular version was developed and played at a school in the town of Rugby (thought to derive from Anglo-Saxon hruch burh = rook’s fortress, with rook referring either to the bird or a person’s name) and thus being designated Rugby football. In Ireland, they play Gaelic football, which is, in turn different from Australian rules football.

Rugby School. Warwickshire

In 1863, the newly formed Football Association (or FA) codified a set of rules that became the standard for Association Football, which involved the kicking of a round ball with only a goal-keeper being allowed to physically handle the ball. At around the same time, colleges in the US were playing a form of football that was more similar to Rugby football, where holding an oval-shaped ball and running with it was the main activity. This was referred to as collegiate football, the precursor the the run-of-the-century professional or grid-iron football.

Typical American Football Team

Now here’s where it gets interesting. In the UK, the phrase “association football” followed the path of simplification by shortening the adjective to soccer, similar to the way in which rugby football had become rugger. In 1889, the English poet and writer Ernest Dowson’s Letters was published, in which he wrote, “I absolutely decline to see socca’ matches.” The misspelling may, in fact, be due to the word not actually having a standard form at that point.

Dowson, as an aside, was one of those tragic figures who had a short life and dead at the age of 32 due to chronic alcoholism. When he was 23, he fell in love with an 11-year-old, Adelaide Foltinowicz, the daughter of a Polish restaurateur. Although nothing came of this infatuation, her marriage in 1897 to one of her father’s waiters became the third element of a tragic trifecta that included the suicide of his father by an overdose of chloral hydrate in 1894, and the suicide of his mother by hanging in 1895. Dowson left for France saying, “I have no lungs left to speak of, an apology for a liver, and a broken heart.” Thus began his slow decline into alcoholism and death back in England in 1900.

Ernest Dowson 1867-1900

In the US, the adjective was dropped rather than shortened and references to collegiate or grid-iron football simply fell back to football alone. An article in the New York Herald of November 1881 said that, “A splendid game of football was played yesterday at the Polo Grounds between… Harvard and Princeton.”

But now for the flip-flop.

The English-originated word soccer was primarily used by the then upper classes, when public school chappies would play rugger, soccer, and cricket, and export them across the empire where the natives would learn to play them and ultimately beat the English in all of them! But the working classes of the 19th and 20th century still played common or garden football, a much more logical name for a game that involved kicking a ball with your foot. So gradually, the popular word for the game in England became football and not soccer.

Meanwhile, on the ranch, the official body for the game of soccer as played in the UK was created in 1913 as the United States of America Foot Ball Association, and became one of the early members of the international body that overseas the World Cup, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). It wasn’t until 1945 that it became the United States Soccer Football Association (and notice how the word association is used along with the word derived from association in the first place!) Then, the flip ultimately flopped in 1974 as the word football was dropped altogether to leave the United States Soccer Federation. With football now firmly associated with American football, using soccer served to make the distinction between the two ball games.

Which brings us back to June 2010, with the Americans using the British English word soccer to refer to… well… soccer! Rather than being some sort of snub to the sons and daughters of Mad King George, it seems that the heirs to the Revolution are preserving a word coined by the 19th century’s Empire Builders. It turns out, therefore, that perhaps in certain respects, the Americans are actually preserving the English language.

Bet we don’t see a letter to the UK’s Daily Telegraph about THAT analysis!

[1] Source: UK Times newspaper article, June 10, 2010: Boris Johnson attacks America’s ‘anti-British’ rhetoric on BP.

Postscript: Germany vs. Greece

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »