Monday, May 28th, 2012
I’m sitting in the Boston airport as I type this, waiting for my flight to London to attend the Orange Prize shortlist reception and start my UK paperback tour. Very exciting! It seemed like the perfect time to post something on etymologies (isn’t it always a good time for etymology?) And hopefully next week I’ll be back with a myth as well.
Those of you who follow this blog know my feelings about snakes, but this is such a great etymology that I couldn’t resist. Herpetology, or the study of reptiles, snakes and amphibians, comes from the ancient Greek “herpo” which means to creep, crawl or slither. In other words, Herpetology is “the study of creepers.” Interestingly enough, in the ancient world, this didn’t just mean snakes and their ilk. The Greek noun herpuster could refer to a reptile or a crawling child. Hmmm.
What really makes this etymology cool is the fact that the “h” sound in Greek very often became “s” in its Latin counterpart. So “herpo” became “serpo,” also meaning to slither. And from there we, of course, get our English word serpent. Other examples of the “h” to “s” change include hept- (Greek root for seven) and Latin sept-, as well as “hals” which is the Greek for salt, which becomes Latin “sal.”
Thersitical. This one isn’t really etymology, but eponym. Thersitical, which means loud-mouthed, rude, and foul, is named after Thersites who was a loud-mouthed, rude and foul character in the Iliad. He’s the only common soldier who dares to stand up to the kings and tell them what he really thinks; in return, Odysseus beats him savagely. He also plays an amazing role in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, where he steals every scene he’s in with his bitter, angry and hilarious diatribes against the hypocrisy he sees around him. Among many other acid observation he notes that “Agamemnon is an honest fellow enough…but he has not so much brain as earwax” and that Achilles has “too much blood and too little brain.” In his most famous line, he sums up the Trojans and Greeks alike: “lechery, lechery, still wars and lechery. Nothing else holds fashion!”
In its modern English usage, agony has come to be an exclusively negative word, but in its original Greek sense, it simply meant “contest”—most often in the physical sense. A boxing match, for instance, was an agon, as was a race—any situation in which contestants strove to beat each other. From this we also get the word “antagonist” which originally just meant opponent—the person against you in the agon. So, although agony is something you suffer in English, I prefer the Greek, where it seems like something you can fight, and maybe win.
Atom. This is a very old word, used by Greek and Roman philosophers to refer to the smallest particles imaginable—the foundation stones that built everything else, and so were themselves “unsplittable”—from “a” (not) and “tomos” (cut). Of course, nowadays we know that atoms can be split. But I like that the name remains anyway—in homage to the amazing ancient philosophers who had the foresight to imagine that the world was made up of things they couldn’t see.
Gallimimus is a ostrich-like dinosaur, whose name is actually Latin, from gallus, meaning chicken, and mimus, meaning mimic—but Latin mimus is itself derived from the Greek mimos, which means an actor or mimic, so I felt like it still counted. And, of course, our word “mime” also comes from it. For all you Jurassic Park fans out there, Gallimimus makes a brief cameo in the first movie: “they’re flocking this way!”
I wish you all a wonderful week and (those in the US) a great Memorial Day weekend!
Monday, May 6th, 2012
Happy May! Here are five more etymologies to kick off the week.
Cacophony. This word, meaning terrible, dissonant noise, is literally just the Greek for “bad sounding” or “bad speaking”—kakos means bad, and phon- speaking. Phon- shows up elsewhere in English, most notable in telephone (far speaking), and in cacophony’s opposite, euphony (good speaking/sounding). By the way, those of you who are Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans can rest assured that Joss Whedon knows his Greek: one of the show’s Big Bads is an old vampire named Kakistos—the superlative of kakos—which literally means the worst.
Rhinoceros. A favorite zoo animal from my childhood was the great, saggy-armored rhinoceros, whose name comes right from ancient Greek. Rhinos is the word for nose and ceros means horn. So, a rhinoceros is appropriately named for its most distinctive feature, its “nose-horn.” Rhino- also shows up in several other English compounds, most commonly in rhinoplasty, or nose job.
Rhapsody. This lovely word has an equally lovely origin. In ancient Greece, a “rhapsode” was a bard who traveled from town to town performing epic poetry, most often stories from Homer. The word rhapsode itself has a further etymology, from the Greek “rhapt-” which means to stitch or sew, and “oid-” meaning song. The job of the bards was to stitch together different pieces of verse to create a whole piece that would go over well with that night’s particular audience.
Moron. It has always tickled me that this petty playground insult is right out of the ancient world. It’s from the Greek moros, meaning stupid or foolish.
Pterodactyl. The dinosaur of the week is pterodactyl, whose name derives from the ancient Greek word for wing or feather, “pteron,“ and “dactyl” which means finger. Put together, the two make the “winged finger” dinosaur we’ve come to know and love. As a very young child I had trouble pronouncing this word, usually turning it into “petrodactyl.” Stone finger? Certainly would make it harder to fly….
I wish you all a happy and high-flying week!
Monday, April 30th, 2012
Hello California! I’m excited to be starting the CA leg of my tour, and if you’re in LA, San Francisco or San Diego and want to hear me speak here are the details of the events.
Rather than a Myth of the Week, I thought I would do another post on modern words with ancient roots. Below are five more of my favorites.
Philadelphia. When I moved to Philadelphia from New York City, I was thirteen and deeply reluctant. For one thing, I was leaving all my friends behind. For another, the city seemed spookily deserted to me after the bustle of Manhattan. In my terrible teenage way, I was particularly irritated by Philadelphia’s cheery, ever-present slogan: The City of Brotherly Love!
But then I started taking Greek, and realized that the phrase isn’t some pollyanna PR line, it’s the literal translation of Philadephia. Phil—is the Greek root for love, and adelphos is the word for brother. Well. That shut me up. The moral of the story? All sulky teens need is a little ancient Greek.
Psychopomp/Psychopompos. This word doesn’t get very much airtime nowadays, but I think it should. A psychopomp is a being whose job it is to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and in ancient Greece this was the messenger god Hermes, whose epithet was Psychopompos. It comes from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, which has found its way into English in all sorts of compounds, including psychiatrist—a word which literally means “soul doctor” (iatros is Greek for doctor). In a lovely bit of metaphor, psyche is also the Greek word for butterfly.
The pomp- part comes from the Greek for escort, or guide, and can refer to either a single escort, or an entire cohort, making it the root of our “pomp” in pomp and circumstance. So, psychopomp literally means soul-guide. By the way, this word frequently provokes hilarity among my Greek students: “Dude, that guy was psycho pompous!”
Apocalypse. This word comes from the Greek roots apo (away from, or un-), and calypto (cover, conceal). So it literally means an uncovering, or, in the biblical sense, revelation. The “calyps” part of apocalypse is the exact same root as the name Calpyso, the nymph from the Odyssey who holds Odysseus (sort of) against his will for seven years. She is the opposite of revelation—a being who uses obfuscation and wiles to keep Odysseus with her, rather than helping him on his journey home.
Pachycephalosaurus. What could be better than giant lizards that bonk each other in the head? If you answered “nothing,” then pachycephalosaurus is the dinosaur for you. Pachy- means thick, or stout; cephal- means head and saurus is our old friend lizard. Which makes pachycephalosaurus one hard-headed lizard. These dinosaurs had a domed, extra-thick skull plate that, according to some scientists, they would use to batter each other with, kind of the way rams do.
Both pachy- and cephal- show up elsewhere in English. Pachy- is part of “pachyderm” literally, thick-skin, another word for elephant. Cephal- goes into all sorts of medical diagnoses like “encephalitis.” But the important thing to remember, I think, is that there were dinosaurs who developed extra-thick heads because they liked to whack into things.
Gubernatorial, “relating to a governor,” is one of my favorite words, because its context is almost always serious, yet you’re still saying the word “goober.” As a child it was classed in my mind with avuncular—another intimidating word that turned out to have a really easy meaning (uncle-ish).
Gubernatorial comes from the Greek kubernetes (koo-ber-nay-tays), which originally meant captain of a ship. Over time, the “k” blurred with its close cousin “g” (both sounds made against the palate), and produced the goober sound that we all know and love. Linguistically the “b” in the middle of the word is closely associated with “v” so it was just an easy step to “governor” from there.
By the way, if you’re looking for a factoid for your next cocktail party, try this: the honors society “phi beta kappa” is actually a Greek acronym for the following phrase: philosophia biou kubernetes—“Love of learning is the guide (captain) of life.”
Have a great week!
Monday, April 16th, 2012
I’ve had a busy past few weeks on my US booktour, with lots of terrific events, and lots of wonderful things still to come. In particular, I am thrilled to be going to Ann Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus, on Tuesday for the kickoff of her First Editions club. She is fabulous, and getting to see her and visit her store is a literary dream come true. Then this weekend I get to hang out at the Books on the Nightstand Vermont Booktopia retreat, with a whole bunch of other book-lovers and authors. After that, it’s on to California!
Unfortunately, amidst all this I haven’t had the chance to give Atalanta, my chosen myth of the week, all the attention she deserved. So rather than short shrift that eminent lady hero, I thought I would push her off to next week, and have this week’s post be a bit different.
For some time now, I’ve been thinking about doing a series about the delights of ancient Greek-derived English. When I first started studying Greek, one of my absolute favorite parts was realizing that so many English words had these old, secret roots. Learning Greek was like being given a super-power: linguistic x-ray vision. Or like in CSI, when they shine the blacklight on the carpet. A silly, ordinary word like hippopotamus sprang suddenly to life as “river horse.” A terrible description, to be sure, but a fascinating one. Is that really how the Greeks thought of them?
I still love these Greek etymologies just as much as I did back then, and thought I would share five of my favorites.
Sarcophagus. By the time I got to my high school Greek class, this word and I were old friends. I had been very fortunate as a child to live near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and to have a mother who was excited to take me there. My favorite exhibits were the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and between the three I saw lots of sarcophagi. I had always assumed that the word was Egyptian, because it sounded mysterious to me, so it was a thrilling moment to realize it was actually Greek: from sark-, meaning flesh, and phag- meaning eating. The sinister name came from the fact that the sarcophagi were often cut from a type of limestone, which was thought to help “devour” the bodies.
When a person in the ancient world was ecstatic, she was actually possessed—so consumed by the god’s presence that she was out of her mind, or standing (stat-) outside (ek-) herself. It’s interesting to me that the word has been now entirely stripped of those religious associations, and come to mean simply the most extreme and delirious type of happiness.
The ancient Greeks were lovers of the human form, especially when it was fit and naked. Ancient athletes both worked out and competed in the nude, and the place where they exercised became known as “the naked place,” or gymnasium, from gymnos, the word for naked. Something to contemplate next time you’re on the elliptical….
Petrichor is one of my favorite words of all time, because it gives a name to something we’ve all experienced: that smoky-mineral scent that rises from the earth after rain. It’s derived from the Greek for rock (petr-) and divine blood (ichor). By the way, that “petr-“ shows up elsewhere in English, in the word petrify, and the name Peter. Jesus makes a clever play on words when he says that the apostle Peter is the rock upon which he will build his church.
I’m not sure what the cut off age is for growing up with Apatosaurus versus Brontosaurus, but I definitely missed it. As a child, I loved my “Brontos” and was very sad to learn that they didn’t, in fact, exist. It’s even sadder because brontosaurus has such a wonderful, evocative name: “thunder lizard.” It used to make me shiver to imagine a creature so big its steps sounded like a storm. But the new improved version, apatosaurus, has a pretty good name too: deceiving lizard. The story goes that this is because paleontologists were “tricked” into mis-identifying it as brontosaurus, but apparently the truth is that the name apatosaurus is actually the older of the two (which is why it won out). It derived from the fact that some of its bones were deceptively like the bones of other dinosaurs.
Have an ecstatic and etymological week!
Reviews“A startlingly original work of art by an incredibly talented new novelist... a book I could not put down.” Ann Patchett, author of the Orange Prize-winning Bel Canto
- Exciting shortlist news! Mass Book and UK Independent Bookseller Awards
- Update: India
- Signed copies of The Song of Achilles–Year Round!
- Reflections on 2012, traveling and the Orange Prize
- In Praise of Literary Adaptations
- My Year in Reading
- Reflections on 2012, Book Recommendations and New Essays
- Signed Copies of The Song of Achilles
- General news
- Shortlisted for Stonewall