Month: May 2012

Atoms, Agony and Gallimimi

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.

A creeping salamander. Photo by Patrick Coin

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!”

Two fighters in an all-out agon. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

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.

Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher who taught about atoms.

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!”

A young gallimimus skeleton. Photo credit, Eduard Solà

I wish you all a wonderful week and (those in the US) a great Memorial Day weekend!

Stray Reading Thoughts: Enchantments

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

I’m in the middle of Kathryn Harrison’s novel Enchantments right now.  The book narrates the events before, during and after the fall of the the Romanovs, through the eyes of “Masha,” Rasputin’s daughter.  I’m enjoying it very much, and particularly admire Masha’s sharp, satiric voice.  Having survived the revolution she finds herself  in an American traveling circus.  She proposes act after act to the owner, and finally hits on one that will satisfy him:

The idea had been to have two bears doing somersaults while I waltzed with a third, Hannibal, and an assortment of lions, pumas, leopards, and tigers sat on their haunches, looking at us…..  For the Daughter of the Mad Monk to waltz with a bear to Strauss while a dozen potentially murderous animals watched was enough, even for Americans.

UK events, NPR and other news

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

I’ve just updated my appearances page in include my UK paperback tour.  It includes two events at the Hay Festival, which I’m very excited about, as well as terrific evenings at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, Topping Books and the Twickenham Library.

In other news, I recently wrote an essay for NPR about a long-time favorite book of mine, Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April.  It was such a pleasure for me to get to write about it, and I hope that you enjoy the piece.

There are just a few days left before I head off to the UK for the Orange Prize shortlist events, so I am busily repacking.  Given all the traveling, Myth of the Week has been on hiatus for the past week, but I promise that I have a good one coming very soon.  The pits of Tartarus aren’t just for men anymore…


Greek Etymology for the Week

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.

The vampire Kakistos, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Portrayed by Jeremy Roberts

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.

A White Rhino mother and her baby. Photo credit, Zigomar

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.

An ancient performer, with lyre. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

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….A pterodactyl skeleton.  Photo by Liné1

I wish you all a happy and high-flying week!