6 Greek Figures that Made it into the English Language

Yes, I love my Greek myths. Here’s another bout of guys and gals, all mortal this time, who have inspired words in our Mother Tongue.

Aesop wrote many fables featuring talking animals acting like humans. However, the underlying purpose was to instill moral values in the reader. Originally, Aesopian simply meant “characteristic of Aesop’s fables.” By the 20th century, it began to refer to writing that had a hidden meaning (much like the morals).

Draco was an Athenian legislator who created a written code of law. His laws were supposed to be exceedingly severe, yet from the fragment that survives, they don’t seem so harsh. “Even if a person commits homicide without the intention to do so, the sentence is exile.” Not too bad really. Yet, the man has been saddled with the idea of harsh laws. Now, Draco is associated with all things cruel and harsh. No doubt, the inspiration for Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter. However, today’s cruelties might be an overly strict parking attendant.

The Myrmidons were the legendary inhabitants of Thessaly, Greece. Their king is someone you might recognize: Achilles. The Myrmidons were his faithful soldiers. Myrmex means “ant” in Greek. No one is quite sure how loyal warriors came to be called ants. Some suspect that a ancestor could take the form of an ant, or that the Myrmidons themselves could become ants. Today, the ant association sticks, meaning loyal follower. However, it has a derogatory sense that the follower is a subordinate, as lowly as an ant.

Everyone knows Alexander the Great (he has Great after his name after all). Few know that his path to glory began with his father, Phillip II of Macedon. In 351 BC, a Greek named Demosthenes laid out just how dangerous Phillip was in a speech. He chastised his countrymen for their inaction. Every speech Demosthenes made after this became known as philippikoi logi (speech relating to Phillip). Today, a philippic is a tirade.

Sibylla was an aged woman who could foretell the future. Sounds dull right? Well how about that she threw herself into an ecstatic frenzy to make her predictions? She must have been good at it because her prophecies were recorded and handed down over the centuries. Eventually any such prophecy became known as a sibyl. Today, it means a prophetess or fortune-teller.

Sophists were  Greek teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Socrates did a decent job of maligning them so that now we think of them as only shallow thinkers. Plato went so far as to describe them as charlatans who would say anything to win an argument. This evolved into a type of reasoning that seems plausible, but is in fact unsound. It can also be an argument that is used to trick the listener.

Tim Kane

Be a Word Horder and Squirrel Away Words Like Nuts

I have a box filled with words. Nearly all come from a decade-long obsession with page-a-day calendars. Each January, I purchase a new one—always a dictionary calendar with word origins. As I flip through, I squirrel away words that interest me. My recent post on Greek myth words came from said box.

The correct word in the right situation can give you power. I recall one time, years ago, when my boss was pontificating to all of us on a subject. I could tell he was making a big deal of a small thing. He had some sort of agenda about picture books and the best way to teach vocabulary. At the time, none of us would ever speak up to him. No one dared. We were all terrified.

I had finally had enough.There were things to do. More important than listen to a contrived lesson. I believe he asked us to define figurative language. So I spouted off: “It’s when the connotative meaning is different from the denotative meaning.” He didn’t know what those two words meant. (Denotative is the literal dictionary meaning and connotative is the implied or suggested meaning.) The lesson came to an abrupt halt.

I realized then how much power words can hold. Especially when people won’t challenge them.

One another time, at my writer’s meeting, one of our wordsmiths used “lubricious” in his writing. I had previously squirreled this word away, but had completely forgotten it. So I asked what it meant. There weren’t exactly giggles, but I could feel the awkwardness in the air. It was assumed that I should know. Still, I got my answer. (In this case, it carried the meaning of: intending to arouse desire.)

Sure it’s embarrassing to ask what a word means. It shows that you don’t know. But what’s worse, wallowing in ignorance, or simply asking? I advise this to my students every day. Ask the “dumb” questions. It’s a guarantee that many other people wanted to ask the question, but didn’t have the guts to come out and say it.

Tim Kane

10 Words Derived from Greek Mythology

Some words have a distinct pedigree. These words hail from Mt. Olympus itself. Godly in origin, use them to spice up your conversation or writing.

1 Antaean

Antaeus was a gigantic and powerful wrestler, son of Gaea, goddess of the Earth, and Poseidon, the sea god. Whenever Antaeus touched his mother, his strength renewed. He always kicked butt when people threw him to the ground. Heracles, always a crafty fellow, bested him by lifting Antaeus off the ground. Then Heracles crushed the god to death.

In English, this word means mammoth, for Antaeus’ size, and superhuman strength.

2 Caduceus

The Greek god Hermes served as a herald and messenger for the other gods. He carried a winged staff with two snakes twisting around it. There is also another staff, that of Aesculapius, the god of healing. This had only one snake and no wings attached.

The Latin translation for herald is karyx, modified into karykeion. Is should only refer to the winged staff with two snakes, but in practice is also refers to the one snake healing staff as well. The staff of Aesculapius as well as the staff of Hermes are used as medical symbols.

3 Chimera (pronounced Kymera)

This was a fearsome beast with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and dragon’s tail. It breathed fire and terrified the people of Lydia. Finally, their king, Iobates, called in the hero Bellerophon. He didn’t actually want Bellerophon to win. The king’s son-in-law wanted the hero killed and the king thought the chimera would be the trick. Trouble was, Bellerophon summoned reinforcements: the winged horse Pegasus (not at all related to Perseus). Bellerophon then took down the creature from above.

Chimera lives on in Enlglish as an illusion or fabrication of the mind. It’s also an impossible dream.

4 Cornucopia

Zeus wasn’t always master of all the gods. In fact, he once was a baby too. As an infant, he was suckled from the horn of a goat. Later, this horn was filled with flowers and fruits and given as a present to Zeus. This filled horn then served as a symbol for abundance.

Besides as serving as a climactic battle scene in the Hunger Games, the word now means an inexhaustible store of something or simply abundance. That’s why it so often appears during Thanksgiving.

5 Halcyon

Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds (Aeolus), learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck. Her grief was unbearable, so she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. The Greeks call these birds alkyon or halkyon. Legend also has it that kingfishers build floating nests on the sea. Because of their heritage, the wind god clams the sea until the eggs have hatched.

The legend prompted people to associate calm and peaceful with the word halcyon. (Actual kingfishers make nests in tunnels dug into the ground).

6 Nemesis

Nemesis was the goddess of vengeance. She doled out rewards for noble deeds and cruel punishments for evil acts. She didn’t punish offenders instantly. Rather she might wait generations, inflicting her wrath on a descendant to avenge the crime.

In English, the word originally referred to someone who doled out just retribution, much like the goddess herself. Modern usage has transformed the word into someone (or something) that frustrated another person’s efforts (much like a curse or an adversary).

7 Paean

The Apollo sometimes disguised himself as Paean, the physician of the gods. Later, musical hymns were sung at to praise Apollo. These were called paeans. They evolved into songs sung at events ranging from  funerals to drinking festivals, as well as traditional marching songs for armies.

Now a paean is any song mean to celebrate joy, praise, or thanksgiving. It can also mean a tribute.

8 Promethean

Probably one of the most recognizable Greek myths is that of Prometheus. One of the Titan giants, he modeled humans from clay and taught them agriculture and how to live together. His final gift was fire that he stole from the gods so that humans could cook and have warmth and light. Zeus, however, wanted the humans to perish, so he punished Prometheus by tying him to a rock. An eagle tore at the giant’s liver every day for eternity.

The modern word bears out its heritage. Promethean means daringly original and creative (in the way that Prometheus helped create civilization). The word can also mean defiant of authority or limits (because Prometheus stole from the gods). Finally, Promethean signifies suffering on a grand scale (to represent the torture inflicted on Prometheus by Zeus).

9 Rhadamanthine

Three judges hold court in the the underworld: Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus. Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. He had been the kind of Crete before dying and becoming supreme judge of the underworld. Aeacus, another son of Zeus (he got around) was king of Aegina before shuffling off the mortal coil and doning judges robes. Rhadamanthus was brother to Minos and king of the Cyclades Islands. He was known for being especially inflexible when handing down his judgements.

The word in English means rigorously strict or just.

10 Thanatology

Thanatos was the personification of death. His twin brother, Hypnos, was the personification of sleep (the root for hypnosis). The ancient Greeks began to use thanatos as a generic word for death.

Thanatology is the study of a description of death. It’s also the psychological methods for coping with death. In 1935, Thanatos came back to describe people with an unconscious tendency toward self-destruction.

Tim Kane

Eight Words You Can Use Next Time You Call in Sick

We’ve all done it. That day you really just don’t feel like going to work. You make your voice sound ragged, maybe fake a few sniffles, and call into work. You have to sound sick to pull of that sick day.

Well, the dictionary is here to help you. Here are eight stupendous words to make you sound sicker (and perhaps more contagious) than you truly are. And hey, some of these aren’t even lies.

1 Ataraxia (noun)
This sounds like it could be some debilitating disease (perhaps involving the clenching of muscles), but it in fact means absolute calm and tranquility—total freedom from anxiety and strain. Just imagine your ataraxia when you actually do get that sick day and stay home from work! (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words)

2 Borborygm (noun)
For all those people who seek a fancy word for fart, here it is. A borborygm is the noise made by gas in the bowels. It comes from the Greek word borborygmós, meaning intestinal rumblings. Here’s how you might utilize it for a sick day call: “I’m suffering from a severe case of the borborygms.?” And if you’re telling the truth, then your co-workers will thank you for taking the day off. (Source: The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird & Wondrous Words)

3 Cardialgia (noun)
This sounds as if you’re about to have a heart attack right on the spot. Relax, it only means mild indigestion. But your co-workers don’t know that. (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words)

4 Collywobbles (noun)
This word just sounds like a kid made it up, doesn’t it? Having the collywobbles means you have sick tummy or you’re scared or nervous (like having butterflies in your stomach).  The word derives from a combination of wobble (as in trembling) with colic. Though if you used this word for your sick day, your boss might think you’re all of five years old. (Source: Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary)

5 Kedogenous (adj)
This adjective means something that is brought about by worry or anxiety (exactly the type of problem you have when calling in sick). Pair this with any other sickness to make it sound more extreme: “kedogenous cardialgia”. (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words)

6 Kinetosis (noun)
Sounds like it could be a distant relative of halitosis. This word means travel sickness. Perhaps this is a sickness you will acquire after you’ve taken the day off from work. (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words)

7 Lippitude (noun)
This might actually be a honest-to-goodness excuse, made a little more fancy to pass off as a true sickness. The word means a bleary-eyed condition—much as you would have after a late night of heavy drinking. Now you can call in sick because you truly are. (Source: The Superior Person’s Book of Words)

8 Tragomaschalia (noun)
This is another great sick excuse. Simply call into work and say that you are suffering from tragomaschalia. Sounds life-threatening, when really it means you suffer from  smelly arm pits. (Source: The Superior Person’s Second Book of Weird & Wondrous Words)

There you have it. Feel free to be sick all you want. Just remember, you might have to “define” your sickness if you use it too often.

Tim Kane