Posts Tagged ‘Greek’

Sigmund FreudToday, May 5, 2016, is the 160th anniversary of the birth of Sigmund Freud. Coming immediately one day after Cinco de Mayo, I’m guessing most folks will be too partied out to go out on the town tonight to drink beer, smoke cigars, snort cocaine, and eat mushrooms. My own raucous celebrations are likely to include take-out food and a Brandy Alexander followed by watching Psycho and wondering if the movie would have turned out differently if only Norman Bates had had an analyst.The it’ll be off to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Freud spent an awful lot of his life talking about dreams. In fact, it took him five years to write his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams, starting in 1895 and seeing the published book in 1900. Here is expounds at length on how dreams are “the Royal Road to the Unconscious” where our deepest, darkest desires roil around like serpents in a pit. In a reference to Virgil’s Aeneid, Freud opened the book with the following quotation:

Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo

Or for those of us who speak little or no Latin, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal regions.” And in the spirit of accuracy, “Acheronta movebo” is more literally translated as “I will move the Acheron,” which in Greek mythology is one of the rivers of the Underworld and Land of the Dead – the river of Woe [1].

A later reworking of Virgil’s phrase is found in Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the fallen angel Lucifer says,

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

If you’ve read Paradise Lost, you’ll know that when Lucifer says this, he’s feeling pretty miserable because he’s been tossed out of Heaven and a little antsy towards God. A more modern interpretation of Lucifer’s angst can be seen in the 1966 movie Bedazzled starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, where Cook – as God – sits atop a post box while Moore – as Lucifer – walks round and around the box worshiping God until Moore says, “Here, I’m getting a bit bored with this. Can’t we change places?”

“That’s exactly how I felt,” says Cook. “I only wanted to be like him and have a few angels adoring me. He didn’t see it like that. Pride, he called it. The sin of pride. Flew into a monumental rage, chucked me out of heaven, gave me this miserable job. Just because I wanted to be loved!”


But before Lucifer became identified in Christian mythology as a fallen angel, the word was used to refer to the morning star, or the planet Venus as it rises in the sky at dawn. The Latin lūcifer is an adjective meaning “light-bringing” and by extension was used as the name for the morning star.

The first part of the word, lūc(i),- comes from lux meaning “light,” and the second part, -fer, is a suffix with the sense of carrying or bearing, as in transfer or crucifer. It comes from the verb ferre meaning “to bear or carry.” The lux element is also the source for the word lucid, meaning “clear” or “easy to understand, and for the common word light as in “bright” or “shining.”

We can stroll a little further back to the Greek word for the morning star or Venus, which is Phosphorus (ϕωσϕόρος ). This itself is a shortening of the phrase ϕωσϕόρος ἀστήρ, which means “bright star,” where phosphorus is an adjective, not a proper noun. The Greek phos (ϕῶς) means “light” and the suffix foros (ϕόρος ) means “to carry” or “to bear” – like the Latin -fer suffix just mentioned. The verb form of “to bear” was actually the Greek pherien (ϕέρειν) and this looks and sounds very similar to the Latin ferre.

When translators came to handle the word Phosphorus, they knew that is had the sense of “bearer of light” and so the Greek phos became the Latin lux and the Greek foros changed to Latin fer – hence Lucifer.

From all this, it should be apparent that the old myth that the word luck comes from Lucifer is wrong. Very wrong. Apart from the three letters L-U-C there’s no link between them. Luck is of Germanic stock with cognates such as Middle Dutch luc, Middle Low German lücke, Old Icelandic lukka, lykka, and Old Danish lukkæ. The ultimate Germanic base form is unknown but it’s certainly not from the same line as Lucifer.

[1] The five rivers of the Underworld are Acheron, Cocytus, Lethe, Phlegethon, and Styx. The first is the river of Woe, the second the river of Lamentation, the third the river of Forgetfulness, the fourth the river of Fire, and the Styx is the river of Dead Progressive Rock Bands.

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As I’ve mentioned many posts ago, one of my favorite ways to waste time is to do crosswords. Earlier this week, a clue from The Daily Telegraph Big Book of Cryptic Crosswords 16 was as follows:

                           Much oil’s used – explanatory note required (8)

It’s a pretty standard cryptic clue with the word “used” suggesting the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” – and the fact that it’s an 8-letter word is another giveaway. So, the answer is an anagram of “much oil’s” and it’s “an explanatory note.” Now, given that some of the letters were already in place as “S_H_L_U_” my best guess was scholium – but this was a new word to me so although it fit, I couldn’t be happy until I found out what it meant.

Picture of crossword puzzle

Crossword: Creative Commons license, Mark Sunter

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

An explanatory note or comment; spec. an ancient exegetical note or comment upon a passage in a Greek or Latin author.

The first cited example is from a 1535 tract by George Joye entitled An apology made to satisfy, if it may be, W. TIndale, where we find “And when I shulde make scholias, notis, and gloses in the margent as himself and his master doith.” In Medieval Latin, a singular note would be a scholium and more than one would be scholia, so it looks like Joye was an early adopter of using the “s” plural for Latin words – a step toward modern English.

Scholium can be traced further back to the Greek scholion (σχόλιον ) that comes from the word scholi (σχολή ) meaning “school.” If we take a look at Liddell and Scott’s classic A Greek-English Lexicon,[1] we find it defined as an “interpretation,” “comment,” or “short note.” Interestingly, another meaning mentioned is as “a tedious speech or lecture” – something I’m sure Classics students have been able to leverage with their teachers for many years.

The word also has a more restricted usage in the field of mathematics to refer to a note added by the actual author to illustrate or further develop a specific point. This meaning pops up in 1704 but hardly becomes a frequently used word.

And speaking of frequency, the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows a measly seven examples from its 450 million word sample, and of those, four refer to something called The Scholium Project, a wine-making project that began in 1999, and the other three were comments on an essay by Isaac Newton, his General Scholium, which became an appendix to his Principia or Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. The plural scholia fairs no better with only five examples, all from fiction books.

You might expect that such an academic word would be more likely to be found in the British National Corpus, created in the home of crusty Classicists, Oxbridge dons, and Civil Service mandarins schooled in Greek and Latin. Alas, out of 100 million words, scholium only manages one example and scholia only two.

In short, it’s a very, very low frequency word and possible found more in cryptic crossword books than actual written texts!

[1] Although I have a copy of Liddell and Scott sitting on the bookshelf, I often use the Perseus Search tools at Tufts University. The search page (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/search) let’s you search for Greek words and includes Liddell and Scott. Well worth bookmarking and very useful for looking for examples of Greek words in a number of classical texts.

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In one of those splendid examples of being divided by a common language, my recent post on petroleum (or petrol, as those wacky Brits like to call it) cries out for a similar investigation into the word gasoline. As far as out motor cars go, they are both the same but etymologically speaking, the are clearly continents apart.

Gas pump

Unlike petroleum, which can be traced back to Greek, gasoline is a relatively new word, dating back to the 19th century, where it starts out life as gasolene or gasoleine – or even gazoline. The OED defines it as follows:

Originally: a light fuel oil made by the fractional distillation of petroleum, used for heating and lighting. Subsequently: a similar petroleum distillate used as motor fuel.

The first recorded mention of the word can be seen in the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle from 1863;

Best and cheapest burning oils for winter… Refined colza, gasolene, petrolene. (12th September)

One interesting possibility for the origin of the word is that it may be an eponym – a word derived from someone’s name. The suggestion is that back in the 1860’s, a London merchant called John Cassell sold lighting fluid for lamps under the trade name Cazelene. Meanwhile, a competitor on Dublin had a similar product called Gazelene, possibly to avoid any legal challenges from Cassell, who had a patent out on Cazelene. And how do we know there was a patent? And ad in the London Times said so;

The Patent Cazeline Oil possesses all the requisites which have so long been desired as a means of powerful artificial light (Times, 27th November, 1862)

Considering that a patent application needs to be around before you start talking about it – let alone printing it – it’s likely that it was around a few years before the 1863 citation of gasolene, and may therefore be an early example of the phenomenon of “genericization” – where a trade name becomes a common word, usually to the dismay of the mark holder!

As we know, the use of gas took off in the US in contrast to the UK’s use of petrol. A quick look at the Corpus of Historical American shows the growth of its use in the phrase “gas station” from 1920 onwards. And both words demonstrate the process of back-clipping – the shortening of a longer word by dropping the end part. So now people talk about gas and petrol, not gasoline and petroleum.

Frequency of use of gas station from 1900 to 2000

Gas station 1920-2000

Still, the word gasoline itself is a great example of how you can build a word from pieces and parts – or for those who are more academically inclined, how to derive a word morphologically. Clearly there are three parts; gas, –ol, and –ine. So let’s go through each one.

Gas was coined in 1648 (or thereabouts) by the Flemish chemist, J.B. Van Helmont (1577–1644) to describe something that was “a far more subtile or fine thing than a vapour, mist, or distilled Oylinesses.” He modeled it on the Greek word chaos (χάος) and he explicitly said that

A few years later, the more global definition was;

A substance in a state in which it expands freely to fill the whole of a container, having no fixed shape (unlike a solid) and no fixed volume (unlike a liquid); spec. (distinguished from a vapour) such a substance above a critical temperature such that it cannot be liquefied by the application of pressure alone; any substance which normally exists in such a state.

This is pretty much what we currently understand as the meaning of gas.

The next part, –ol, is a suffix used in chemistry to form the names of hydrocarbons – such as that which we refine as fuel for cars. It comes from the Latin oleum meaning “oil,” which in turn appears to be a variation on the Greek elaion (ἔλαιον) or “olive oil.”

The final piece is the suffix –line that was used in the 19th century to create the names of chemical derivatives i.e. chemicals that were created as a result of extracting them using some sort of process – as in the distillation of fuel.

Still, whether you call it petrol or gasoline, it still burns a hole in your pocket!

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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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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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Those of us who write and  are not digital natives will remember a most excellent piece of technology called a typewriter. Anyone under 30 may well never have used one, nor even seen one, bizarre as that may seem to we “oldies.”

The typewriter was a predecessor to the word processor and was a mechanical device that printed letters on paper when you pressed the keys on a keyboard. When you hit a key, a small metal block with a letter embossed on it would hammer against a piece of paper through an intervening inked ribbon.  Here’s a short clip of someone using a typewriter, especially for our younger readers:

One of my first purchases when I went to university in the late 1970’s was a Smith-Corona blue typewriter, which I used to make my reports and essays more legible because my handwriting was never all that good. It still isn’t. At the time it was pretty much cutting edge, and, if memory serves, it had two colors; black and red. Cutting edge indeed!

Still, the act of creating an essay was laborious, especially if an error was made because there was, of course, no delete key available. The process of deletion involved using a white correction fluid to cover the mistake, then, once you’d let it dry, retype the intended word – or even sentence.

The temptation to make life easier by copying whole chunks of text from articles and books was always there. However, when you were “pulling an all-nighter” [1] it was actually easier to hammer out authentic text than copied, although there was always an element of rephrasing going on.

The act of taking whole chunks of someone else’s work is called plagiarism, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as;

The action or practice of taking someone else’s work, idea, etc., and passing it off as one’s own; literary theft.

The first written example dates from 1621 in Richard Montagu’s Diatribæ upon the first part of the late history of tithes in the phrase, “Were you afraid to bee challenged for plagiarisme?” Yet only a few years earlier we see the word plagiary also being used, and so both plagiarism and plagiary existed together.

Both words can be traced to the Latin plagiarius, a person who abducts the child or slave of another, or even a kidnapper, seducer, or literary thief. The Latin plagium means “kidnapping,: and so the modern notion of plagiarism fits well with the metaphor of “kidnapping an idea.”

The word may derive from the earlier Latin plaga meaning “net” or “snare,” or perhaps the earlier ancient Greek πλάγιος, which means oblique or slanted. Either way, it’s almost poetic to describe the stealing of someone’s work as a kidnapping of ideas. It almost makes it sound fair.

The Internet, with its easy access to text, has now made plagiarism much easier. Stunningly easier. As bloggers cut and paste wholesale from online newspapers, publishers are scrambling to know what to do. When does “fair use” become outright plagiarism? And how do you stop it when tossing bits and bytes across the Net takes no more than a click of a button and can be routed through computers across the entire world, many of which sit outside the jurisdiction of law enforcement?

The “plague of plagiarism” [2] is with us for the foreseeable future. And in case you were wondering, sadly plague does not come from the same source as plagiarism, despite it sounding so similar. The Latin plaga also exists as a word meaning “wound” or “gash” or “strike,” which is different from the “net” meaning of plagiarism. This meaning also carries the association with a wound or blow due to some form of divine retribution, hence the link to the modern meaning of plague.


It's a crime

[1] An “all-nighter,” as the word suggests, is a mode of action favored by procrastinators, idlers, and party-loving students, who wait until the night before an essay is due to actually write it. Knowing that your work had to handed in at a specific time less than 24-hours away focuses your concentration wonderfully. Much as I tried to avoid these things, I found that drinking copious amounts of tea would help the process along, and for that very reason I bought myself a pint mug to make large drinks. On a tough essay, I could go through up to four pints of tea before I’d finished.

[2] To avoid the charge of being a plagiarist, I have to ‘fess up to the fact that although I came up with the phrase “plague of plagiarism” on my own, it sounded so appropriate that I couldn’t believe no-one else had ever used it. Not surprisingly, it isn’t unique.  A Google search popped up 77,800 hits, with the first being to an article by Dr. Irving Hexham from the University of Calgary. In it, he says that to avoid the charge of being a plagiarist you should cite where you find text. So here’s the link to Dr. Irving’s original essay, The Plague of Plagiarism.

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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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