Obscenity Watch: Walk Like an Egyptian

We are happy to have new contributions from the Fabulous Dr. Amy Coker. She shares a certain scatalogical interest, but brings considerable expertise to the matter.

This latest word is not to do with sex, but rather with another bodily action which is often a source of taboo words, excretion. More specifically, this post is about words I have been affectionately characterising as denoting ‘solid waste’ (or ‘poo’, ‘faeces’, etc.). One of the words in ancient Greek for the noun ‘poo’ is κόπρος (ko-pross), the word which gives us English scientific words beginning with ‘copro-‘ such as ‘coprolite’ – fossilised faeces – coined in the early nineteenth century.

Despite the unpleasantness of the substance κόπρος indicates, the word itself is not really ‘taboo’ or offensive, and is found in a range of Classical works from Homer’s epics to medical works in the Hippocratic corpus: κόπρος is milder in tone than the English four-letter word, ‘sh*t’. What sparked this post is an example in our ancient texts of a word similar to κόπρος – κόπριον (ko-pree-on). In technical parlance, this word is the stem κοπρ- plus the diminutive suffix -ιον (-ee-on): this last part is a segment which makes a word meaning the same thing as the stem, or a smaller version of it, or indicates affection from the speaker to the object (a bit like English ‘toe’, diminutive ‘toe-sie’).

The example of κόπριον we are interested in comes from a papyrus letter written in Egypt in the late 2nd or 3rd century AD, known as P.Oxy. 1761. Greek was the dominant language of Egypt for around a thousand years from the conquest of Alexander the Greek to the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century AD, so that fact that this letter is written in Greek in Egypt is not unusual. This letter is in other respects too typical of those written in vast numbers by individuals about everyday matters; these people are otherwise lost to history, but their correspondence by chance survives. (See picture for an example of what a papyrus letter looks like).

P.Oxy. 1672 Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, AD 37-41. Image courtesy of The Garstang Museum, University of Liverpool.
The first two lines read: Δημήτριος καὶ Παυσανίας Παυσαν[ί]αι | τῶι πατρὶ πλεῖστα χαίρειν καὶ ὑγι(αίνειν)- ‘Demetrius and Pausanias to their father Pausanias very many greetings and wishes for good health.’
It is lines 6-7 of P.Oxy. 1761 where the surprise lies: as Grenfell and Hunt put it in their edition in the early twentieth century, here ‘A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified’. Here is a full translation of the letter, as given by Montserrat’s Sex & Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996, 8); the bold words are the ones which concerns us:

Callirhoë to her dear Sarapis, greetings. I say a prayer for you every day in the presence of the lord Sarapis. Since you have been away I go on the trail of your shit in my desire to see you. Greet Thermouthis and Helias and Ploution and Aphrodite and Nemesianus. Carabus and Harpocration greet you, and everyone at home. I pray for your health.

The Greek text which lies behind this ‘singular symptom of regret’ is: ἐπιζῃητοῦμέν σου τὰ κόπρια, literally, ‘I/we look for (or miss?) your κόπριον-s’ (κόπρια is the plural of κόπριον). There is no wandering about here, despite the impression the translation might give. A slightly more recent translation by Bagnall & Cribiore in their collection of women’s letters (2006, 392) renders these words as the striking ‘we are searching for your turds’.

Is Callirhoë really looking through the dunghill because she misses her friend? Even when we accept that ancient peoples did things differently, this seems a stretch. We could be tempted to think that this is an idiom peculiar to Egypt, perhaps stemming from a native expression, but there seems to be no obvious parallel (suggestions are welcome). I think rather the best explanation comes back to what κόπρος/κόπριον means.

Both these words are also used more broadly of ‘rubbish’, or things which can be taken away to be used as fertiliser: remember that most ancient waste was organic. κόπριον is found in this kind of sense in the Magical Papyri, an ancient collection of spells, where it is something picked up from the ground where a corpse has lain (PGM 4.1395-8, 4.1441-2). Dieter Betz translates this as ‘polluted dirt’, but the pollution comes only from the context of the spell.

I think here and in our letter we should rather take κόπρια as indicating ‘useless remains’ or ‘traces’, akin to English ‘crap’: note how ‘crap’ has just this double meaning of ‘excrement’ and ‘rubbish’ in contemporary UK English (e.g. ‘there is so much crap in my house’). The result is that Callirhoë is not looking for any particular bodily waste produced by her dear Sarapis, but rather for indications that she has been around: a rather loose translation of this sentiment might therefore be ‘I go through your crap wanting to find you there’.

Thanks to the Gartang Museum for use of the image of P.Oxy. 1672: follow the Museum’s blog at: http://garstangmuseum.wordpress.com.

Copyright © 2014/2019 Amy Coker. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Amy Coker has over the last decade held positions in Classics and Ancient History at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol in the UK. After undergraduate studies in Classics at Downing College, Cambridge, and an MA in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, she was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to support her doctoral work on gender variation in Ancient Greek (2007-2009, PhD Manchester 2010). She later secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (2013-2016) for a project on Greek sexual and scatological vocabulary, and ancient offensive language. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Classical Studies, University of London (2017-2018), and is now an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Bristol (2018-), and teacher of Classics at Cheltenham Ladies College (2018-).

She has published work in the fields of historical linguistics, pragmatics, and classics, and has pieces about to appear on the treatment of obscene language in the most well-known lexicon of Ancient Greek, Liddell and Scott, and on a filthy joke told by Cleopatra involving a ladle.

She is a keen supporter of outreach and public engagement, and has worked with the UK charity Classics for All running projects to bring Latin and Greek teaching to schools which have no tradition of teaching these subjects. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.

 

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