Was Nausikaa a “Ship-Burner”? Speaking Names and Etymology

In honor of the Odyssey Round the World, a re-post

In a post, Palaiophron talks about seeing me lecture and kindly does not make it clear that when a student first asked me for the etymology of Nausikaa, I was flabbergasted and admitted it. The context was a discussion of the names Nausithoos (“swift-in-ships”) and Nausinoos (“ship-minded”) in the Homeric and Hesiodic traditions. Why wouldn’t I think that the offering of two etymologies might prompt an audience member to wonder about a third, when I mentioned the name as a parallel?

The embarrassing truth is that for some unknown reason I had never really thought about the meaning of the name Nausikaa. So, on the spot, I suggested Ναυσι+ καίω for something like “ship-burner”. Palaiophron rightly reacted that this would be preposterous for the narrative of the Odyssey and eventually dug up the records of the ancients who tied the name to either a form of καίνυμι (to excel, or surpass) or from κοσμέω (to arrange, adorn).

So, he cites Pseudo-Zonaras, in his Lexicon, writes: “Nausikaa. Excelling in ships.” (Ναυσικάα. ταῖς ναυσὶ κεκασμένη) confirmed by Etymologicum Magnum which adds Nausikaa: “Excelling (that is, honored [or, an ornament to?]). Ναυσικάα: Κεκασμένη (ὅ ἐστι κεκοσμημένη). Kallierges repeats this (598.28): Ναυσικάα: Κεκασμένη (ὅ ἐστι κεκοσμημένη) ταῖς ναυσί.

But I am deeply unhappy with the contraction of something like Nausikastê or Nausikosmê. The chief problem with such a name for Greek prosody is the shape: a long syllable, followed by a short, and two longs. Obviously, such a name wouldn’t fit. –kastê compounds that do appear in Homer and Hesiod with some frequency start with two short syllables, one short syllable, or one long followed by two shorts.

Il.2.647 Λύκτον Μίλητόν τε καὶ ἀργινόεντα Λύκαστον
Il. 13.173 κούρην δὲ Πριάμοιο νόθην ἔχε, Μηδεσικάστην•
Od.3.464 τόφρα δὲ Τηλέμαχον λοῦσεν καλὴ Πολυκάστη,
Od. 11.271 μητέρα τ’ Οἰδιπόδαο ἴδον, καλὴν ᾿Επικάστην,
14.336 ἔνθ’ ὅ γέ μ’ ἠνώγει πέμψαι βασιλῆϊ ᾿Ακάστῳ

Hes. Fr. 35.13: τοὺς δὲ μέθ’ ὁπλοτάτην τέκετο ξανθὴν] Πολυκάσ[την
221.15 Τηλεμάχωι δ’ ἄρ’ ἔτικτεν ἐύζωνος Πολυκάστη

The second problem is that the full version of the name only occurs in one metrical position. So, it is clear why it would be attractive to shorten the name to make it fit the meter and with greater positional flexibility. Nevertheless, there is no other example of such a contraction or of the ending suffix in the ancient Greek language.

I do wonder if there was a digamma in the mix (Nausi-kawa) but I don’t know what that would mean and the likely contraction would be kaua or even kwa. A clever suggestion from twitter is that the compound was ναυ – σικύα , ‘sea-melon(s)’—but there are way too many compounds of the type nausi + to reanalyze it this way. (In addition, I cannot see the upsilon totally disappearing.)

There is support for the reading “Ship-burner” from two places. First, the Etym. Gudianum (445.9) lists ἔκαα as a dialectical variation for the aorist ἔκαυσα from καίω (“to burn”). This would suggest that the iota functioned as a present infix to contrast with a verbal root of ka-. (I need to check PIE and a good Sanskrit dictionary for this). Such a phenomenon would make the –καα form older than the iota-added one.
῾Ομήρου ῎Εκηα <Α 40>• καίω, καύσω, ἔκαυσα κοινῶς, ἔκαα ᾿Αττικῶς, ἔκηα ᾿Ιωνικῶς, ὥσπερ χέω, χεύσω κοινῶς, χεύω ᾿Ιωνικῶς, χέω ᾿Αττικῶς, καὶ ὁ ἀόριστος ἔχευσα καὶ ἔχευα ἔχεα.

(Much of the same logic could work for καίνυμι which is marked as a present both by the iota and the nu. So that hurts.)

But Palaiophron did cite from the Suda which presents a bit of a wild justification for the “burning” etymology.

“Nausikaa: A proper name. Homer says that she is the Phaiacian princess fit for that land, because the Phaiacians – being the excellent mariners that they are – burn pitch upon their ships for stability.”

Ναυσικάα: ὄνομα κύριον. μέμνηται ῞Ομηρος Ναυσικάας Φαιακικῆς βασιλικῆς παιδὸς προσφυῶς τῇ χώρᾳ• ἐπεὶ ναυτικώτατοι ὄντες ἐπέκαιον ταῖς ναυσὶ πίσσαν πρὸς ἀσφάλειαν.

This explanation is a stretch. But it shows an attempt to explain the possible resonance of burning with Nausikaa. Because I was practically losing sleep over this, I consulted eminent Homerist and Odyssey specialist Erwin Cook and he said “the standard etymology for Nausicaa connects -kaa to kastos/kainumai + dat.= surpassing in ships. But, I am all for zweideutigkeit with speaking names in Homer and think that “ship burner” was heard and meant as a *potential* and threatening but ultimately unrealized identity.”

I think that the “ship-burner” etymology is additionally attractive if we think about the context of the Odyssey where Nausikaa presents a threat of keeping Odysseus from his homecoming and in a poetic tradition where he does stay with her in some accounts. As a “ship-burner” she would represent the destruction of actual or possible ships that could bring him home.

In our Odyssey, however, she may also presage the destruction of Phaeacian ship-faring ability. At the least, for audiences who might have heard in the name “burning”, the potential etymology represents imminent or possible danger—the very type of danger that Odysseus encountered on every island he visited.

To support this more, one would have to read carefully through her appearances in the Odyssey and do a little more with the old historical linguistics.

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