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.

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

Greek Nostos and English Nostalgia

A re-post in honor of Odyssey Round the World

Someone asked me to put together a post on nostos. Here’s what I got. I am happy to add anything someone else can find. This is far from exhaustive.

The Greek noun nostos (“homecoming”) is mostly reconstructed as a reflex of a verbal root neomai (“to come or go”) but its semantic range drifts to include ideas of salvation and rescue.

From Beekes’ Etymological Dictionary of Ancient Greek (2010)

nostos beeks

In early Greek poetry, nostos is a song that is about homecoming. On this, see Nagy 1999 [1997], 97; Murnaghan 2002, 147. Douglas Frame (1978) argues that it also means “return to light and life” whereas Anna Bonifazi adds “salvation not death”. For more on the nostoi as a tradition, see the discussion and bibliography in Barker and Christensen 2015. Gregory Nagy surveys the meaning of the term nostos in the Odyssey as return and a song of homecoming in his Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours.

In later Greek, the term retained much of this meaning but, as I will show below, it can also mean “sweetness”. The thematic and proverbial power of the poetic tradition seems to have kept this specialized meaning as primary as the language developed.

From E.A. Sophocles “Dictionary of Byzantine Greek”

nostos med

Our English word nostalgia comes from a post-classical Latin compound which has deep resonance with Greek epic, especially Odysseus. Odysseus has thematic associations with algea (neuter plural for algos, “grief, pain”). Our modern meaning of “acute longing for familiar surroundings” or “sentimental longing for a period of the past (OED online)” may draw on ancient poetic associations. A nostos is a return to the home, which is symbolically a return to the past. Ultimately, it is partly a futile wish because neither home nor person (neither the past, nor the rememberer) remain the same.

Nostalgia was originally coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 for a pathological mental disorder, a type of mania that involved longing for the past. Some modern psychological studies still examine the phenomenon. It has been described as both parafunctional in undermining a sense of well-being and rootedness in the future (Verplanken 2012) and as a useful resource of memory which can help reinforce identity against existential threats (Routledge et al 2012 and Sedikedis and Wildschut 2016).

The ancient etymological dictionaries pretty much provide the same information as the Byzantine Suda:

Suda, Nu 500

“Nostos: The return to home. From the sweetness of a homeland. Or it comes from the giving of flavor. But also “the poets who sang the songs of Return follow Homer to the extent they are capable. It seems that not only one poet composed and wrote the homecoming of the Achaeans, but some others did too.

Νόστος: ἡ οἴκαδε ἐπάνοδος. παρὰ τὸ τῆς πατρίδος ἡδύ.

ἢ ἡ ἀνάδοσις τῆς γεύσεως. καὶ οἱ ποιηταὶ δὲ οἱ τοὺς Νόστους ὑμνήσαντες ἕπονται τῷ ῾Ομήρῳ ἐς ὅσον εἰσὶ δυνατοί. φαίνεται ὅτι οὐ μόνος εἷς εὑρισκόμενος ἔγραψε νόστον ᾿Αχαιῶν, ἀλλὰ καί τινες ἕτεροι.

Nu 501

“Homecoming: in regular use it is “sweetness”, applied to edibles. This comes from the [sweetness] of returning and coming back again home. From the sweetness of your homeland, for nothing is sweeter than your fatherland, according to Homer. From nostos in customary use we also have nostimon, which can mean “pleasant”, “sweet”. And there is a certain god, Eunostos, a divinity of the mill. The poetic term nostos comes from neô [to go], in, for example “now I am not going home.” This means “I do not return” [epanerkhomai]. There is also the form nostô, which provides the compounds palinostô, and aponostô.”

Νόστος: παρὰ τῇ συνηθείᾳ ὁ γλυκασμός, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐδεσμάτων. ὡς ἀπὸ τῆςοἴκαδε ἀνακομιδῆς καὶ ἀναστροφῆς· παρὰ τὸ τῆς πατρίδος γλυκύ. οὐδὲν γὰρ γλύκιον ἧς πατρίδος, καθ’ ῞Ομηρον. ἐκ δὲ τοῦ κατὰ τὴν συνήθειαν νόστου καὶ νόστιμον, τὸ ἡδύ. καὶ Εὔνοστος, θεός τις, φασίν, ἐπιμύλιος. ὁ δὲ ποιητικὸς  νόστος παρὰ τὸ νέω γίνεται. οἷον, νῦν δ’ ἐπεὶ οὐ νέομαι γε. ἤγουν οὐκ ἐπανέρχομαι. ἔστι δὲ καὶ ῥῆμα νοστῶ, οὗ σύνθετα παλινοστῶ καὶ ἀπονοστῶ


Some things cited in this post:

Barker, Elton T. E. and Christensen, Joel P. 2015. “Odysseus’s Nostos and the Odyssey’s Nostoi,” in G. Scafoglio, Studies on the Epic Cycle. Rome. 85–110.

Bonifazi, A. 2009. “Inquiring into nostos and its cognates.” American Journal of Philology 130: 481–510.

Frame, Douglas. 1978. The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic. New Haven.

Murnaghan, Sheila. 2002. “The Trials of Telemachus: Who Was the Odyssey Meant for?” Arethusa 35: 133–153.

Nagy, Gregory. 1979. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.

Routledge, Clay, Wildschut Tim, Sedikides, Constantine, Juhl, Jacob, , and  Arndt, Jamie. 2012”The power of the past: Nostalgia as a meaning-making resource.” Memory, 1-9.

Sedikides, Constantine and Wildschut, Tim. 2016. ”Nostalgia: A Bittersweet Emotion that Confers Psychological Health Benefits.” The Wiley Handbook of Positive Clinical  Psychology, 126–136.

Verplanken, Bas. 2012. “When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers.” European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 285–289.

“A Man Marries, a Woman Gets Married”

Or, how philology is not apolitical….

An Anonymous Grammarian, De Adfinium Vocabulorum Differentia (“On Similar but different words”) 120

“Marrying [gêmai] is different from ‘getting married’ [gêmasthai] in that a man marries but a woman gets married. Homer has made the difference between them clear when he said of getting married:  “once she [Epikastê] got married to her own son; and he married her / after killing his father.”

And Anakreon [demonstrates the distinction] when he mocks someone for being effeminate: “and the bedroom in which that guy didn’t marry but got married instead.”

Aeschylus too in his Amumône writes: “it is your fate to be married but it is mine to marry.”

γῆμαι τοῦ γήμασθαι διαφέρει, ὅτι γαμεῖ μὲν ὁ ἀνήρ, γαμεῖται δὲ ἡ γυνή. καὶ ῞Ομηρος τὴν διαφορὰν τετήρηκεν αὐτῶν, ἐπὶ τοῦ γήμασθαι εἰπών (λ 273 sq.)

     ‘γημαμένη ᾧ υἱῷ· ὁ δ’ ὃν πατέρ’ ἐξεναρίξας


καὶ ᾿Ανακρέων (P.M.G. 424 Page = fr. 87 D.2) διασύρων τινὰ ἐπὶ θηλύτητι

     ‘καὶ †θαλάμοις† ἐν ᾧ κεῖνος οὐκ ἔγημεν ἀλλ’ ἐγήματο’,

καὶ Αἰσχύλος (fr. 131 Mette = fr. 13 N.2) ἐν ᾿Αμυμώνῃ

     ‘σοὶ μὲν γὰρ γαμεῖσθαι μόρσιμον, γαμεῖν δ᾿ ἐμοί

The distinction between gêmai [or gamein] and gêmasthai [gameisthai] is an important example of Greek active versus mediopassive voice. The active here means “to take a spouse”; while the mediopassive form [according to LSJ] means to “offer to have your child made a spouse” or, “to give oneself in marriage”. This is also a good example of how gendered difference in agency and personhood is structured into basic linguistic distinctions.

As I teach my students, the middle voice is often about indirect agency* (when the agent of an action is not the same as the grammatical subject of the sentence). So, with the verb luô, it means in the active “I release” and in the passive “I am released” but in the middle “ransom”, because in the background is the idea that “x arranges for y to release z”. (And this is a pretty ancient meaning: Chryses appears to the Achaeans in book 1 of the Iliad “for the purpose of ransoming his daughter” [λυσόμενός τε θύγατρα]).

In two examples cited by the anonymous grammarian above words are morphologically middle (γημαμένη and ἐγήματο are aorists, one of the two tenses that has distinct middle and passive morphology in Greek), but the semantics of the words seem less middle than passive to me. At the very least, we have Epikaste “[allowing herself] to be married” in the Homeric example. Anacreon’s joke emasculates the target by taking agency away from him and Aeschylus attests to a similar distinction in the fragment. But the point to take away is that it would be striking in ancient Greece to say that a woman marries someone else as an active agent.

*Often, but not always! The middle voice can be causative, alternate with the active for transitive/intransitive meanings, be quasi-reflexive, or just downright weird (‘idiomatic’!).

Here’s part of the LSJ Entry:

gameo lsj

Here’s Beekes on the root:

gameo beekes

Fateful Etymology

Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogy of the Pagan Gods (1.5):

“Proper names have already been discussed, so we must speak now of common names. Cicero calls the Fates the Parcae, through antiphrasis as I believe, because they would spare (parcant) no one. They admit no exceptions for any persons, and God alone is able to change their power and order. The name Fatum or Fata is, however, derived from the verb for fari [=to speak], as if the people who imposed the name on them wished to indicate that what they do is irrevocable, as if spoken or preordained by God. We can see this readily enough in the words of Boethius, and even Augustine seems to agree in his City of God. But he holds back from using the word itself, advising us that if anyone should wish to call the will or power of God by the name of Fate, they should hold their opinion and bridle their tongue.”

Marco Bigio, The Three Parcae (1550)

De nominibus propriis predictum est, de appellativis dicendum. Vocat igitur has Tullius Parcas, ut reor per antiphrasin, quia nemini parcant; nulla enim apud eas est acceptio personarum, solus deus potest pervertere earum vires et ordinem. Fatum autem aut Fata a for faris tractum nomen est, quasi velint, qui id imposuere nomen, quod ab eis agitur a deo quasi irrevocabile dictum sit seu previsum, ut per verba Boetii satis assumitur, et etiam sentire videtur Augustinus, ubi De civitate dei. Sed abhorret ipse vocabulum admonens, ut si quisquam voluntatem dei seu potestatem nomine Fati appellet, sententiam teneat, linguam coerceat.

Dr. False Etymology

Varro, de Lingua Latina 6.7:

“If I, knowing a thing, say it (dico) to someone who does not know it and impart to them what they were previously ignorant of, you may see the derivation of the verb ‘teach’ (doceo). This is either because we speak (dicimus) when we teach (docemus), or because those who are taught (docentur) are being led into (inducuntur) that which they are being taught. From the fact that one knows how to lead, one is a leader (dux aut ductor); and the word doctor is one who leads students in such a way that he teaches (doceat) them. From leading (ducendo) comes teaching (docere) and from discipline (disciplina) comes learning (discere), with a few letters changed. From the same principle we have documents (documenta), which are examples spoken for the sake of teaching (docendi).”

Image result for weasel teaching manuscript

Si dico quid sciens nescienti, quod ei quod ignoravit trado, hinc doceo declinatum vel quod cum docemus dicimus vel quod qui docentur inducuntur in id quod docentur. Ab eo quod scit ducere qui est dux aut ductor; hinc doctor qui ita inducit, ut doceat. Ab ducendo docere disciplina discere litteris commutatis paucis. Ab eodem principio documenta, quae exempla docendi causa dicuntur.

Adventures in Preposterous Etymology

Plato, Cratylus 397d:

“It seems to me that the earliest people in Greece had a notion of only those gods whom the majority of barbarians now recognize: the Sun, the Earth, the Stars, and the Sky. Now, because they noticed that these things were always moving in a circle and ‘running’ (theonta), they called them gods (theous) from the nature of that running (thein). Later, once they came to acknowledge the existence of other gods, they continued to use the same word, ‘gods’ for them as well.”

φαίνονταί μοι οἱ πρῶτοι τῶν ἀνθρώπων τῶν περὶ τὴν ῾Ελλάδα τούτους μόνους
[τοὺς θεοὺς] ἡγεῖσθαι οὕσπερ νῦν πολλοὶ τῶν βαρβάρων,
ἥλιον καὶ σελήνην καὶ γῆν καὶ ἄστρα καὶ οὐρανόν• ἅτε οὖν
αὐτὰ ὁρῶντες πάντα ἀεὶ ἰόντα δρόμῳ καὶ θέοντα, ἀπὸ ταύτης
τῆς φύσεως τῆς τοῦ θεῖν “θεοὺς” αὐτοὺς ἐπονομάσαι• ὕστε-
ρον δὲ κατανοοῦντες τοὺς ἄλλους πάντας ἤδη τούτῳ τῷ ὀνό-
ματι προσαγορεύειν.

A Hometown to Be Sick Over

If you want to know more words for puking in Greek and Latin, we’ve got you covered.

Etymologicum Magnum [= Etymologicum Gudianum, 461.13]

“Emeia. This is a place near Mycenae. Emeia comes from emo [“to vomit”] just as Thaleia comes from thallô [“to bloom, flourish”]. It is so named either because Kerberos puked there after he came up from Hades or because Thyestes puked there after he ate his own children.”

῎Εμεια: Τόπος ἐστὶ πλησίον Μυκηνῶν· παρὰ τὸ ἐμῶ ῎Εμεια, ὡς θάλλω Θάλεια. Λέγεται δὲ, ἐπειδὴ ἐκεῖ ἤμεσεν ὁ Κέρβερος ἀνελθὼν ἐκ τοῦ ᾅδου· ἢ ἐπειδὴ ἐκεῖ ἔμεσεν ὁ Θυέστης φαγὼν τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ.


Eustathius, Comm. Ad Homeri Il. 1.282.24

“…after he tasted them he caused the city Emeia to be named for him because it is where he vomited up the things he ate.”

ὧν καὶ γευσάμενος ἐκεῖνος πόλιν ἐξ αὐτοῦ ἀφῆκε καλεῖσθαι τὴν ῎Εμειαν, ὅπου δηλαδὴ τὰ καταβρωθέντα ἐξήμεσε.


Interestingly, there is a bit of a slip the next time Eustathius tells the story.

Eustathius, Comm. Ad Homeri Il. 3.691.20

“[Note also] that the city Emeia comes from emein [to vomit] because it is where Aigisthos [sic] vomited after eating his own children thanks to the plan of Atreus, as the story goes.”

Οτι δὲ ἐκ τοῦ ἐμεῖν καὶ πόλις ῎Εμεια, περὶ ἣν Αἴγισθος ἤμεσε φαγὼν ἐξ ἐπιβουλῆς ᾿Ατρέως τὰ οἰκεῖα τέκνα, ἡ ἱστορία φησίν.

Picture found here

Paging Dr. Isidore

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 6.14 (go here for the full text):

Previously, librarii were called bibliopolas, because the Greeks call a book a biblion. The same people are called both librarii and antiquarians, but librarii are those who copy out both old and new things, while antiquarians are those who write out only the old, from which fact they derive their name. The scribe has received this name from writing (scribendo), expressing their duty with the quality of the word.

The scribe’s tools are the reed and the quill, because it is from these tools that words are fashioned on the page. But the reed comes from a plant, while the quill comes from a bird; its tip is divided into two, with its unity preserved throughout its whole form. I think that this is on account of the mystery rite and signifies the Old and New Testaments on its two points, by which the sacramen of the word is expressed as it pours forth from the blood of the Passion.

The reed (calamus) is so called because it lays down its liquid. For this reason, among sailors the word calare means “to set down”. The quill (penna) however, gets its name from hanging (pendendo), that is to say, from flying. It is, as I have said, proper to birds.

The sheets (foliae) of books are so called either from their similarity to the leaves of trees, or because they are made from folles, that is, from the hides which are typically taken from slain animals. The parts of these are called pages (paginae) because they are joined together (compingantur) in turn.

Verses are so called by the common people because the ancients used to write in the same way that they ploughed the land. At first, they drew the stylus from left to right, and then they turned it around on the following line, and then the succeeding line was again written from left to right. Rustic people still call these things verses. A scheda is a page which is still being corrected and not yet put back into the books. This is a Greek word, just like tomus.

Boustrophedon - Wikimedia Commons
An example of the boustrophedon mode of writing which Isidore describes here.

DE LIBRARIIS ET EORVM INSTRVMENTIS. Librarios antea bibliopolas dictos. Librum enim Graeci BIBLON vocant. Librarii autem iidem et antiquarii vocantur: sed librarii sunt qui et nova scribunt et vetera; antiquarii, qui tantummodo vetera, unde et nomen sumpserunt. Ab scribendo autem scriba nomen accepit, officium exprimens vocabuli qualitate. Instrumenta scribae calamus et pinna. Ex his enim verba paginis infiguntur; sed calamus arboris est, pinna avis; cuius acumen in dyade dividitur, in toto corpore unitate servata, credo propter mysterium, ut in duobus apicibus Vetus et Novum Testamentum signaretur, quibus exprimitur verbi sacramentum sanguine Passionis effusum. Dictus autem calamus quod liquorem ponat. Vnde et apud nautas calare ponere dicitur. Pinna autem a pendendo vocata, id est volando. Est enim, ut diximus, avium. Foliae autem librorum appellatae sive ex similitudine foliorum arborum, seu quia ex follibus fiunt, id est ex pellibus, qui de occisis pecudibus detrahi solent; cuius partes paginae dicuntur, eo quod sibi invicem conpingantur. Versus autem vulgo vocati quia sic scribebant antiqui sicut aratur terra. A sinistra enim ad dexteram primum deducebant stilum, deinde convertebantur ab inferiore, et rursus ad dexteram versus; quos et hodieque rustici versus vocant. Scheda est quod adhuc emendatur, et necdum in libris redactum est; et est nomen Graecum, sicut et tomus.

Etymology? Leave it to the Prose

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 1.38: (Full text on Lacus Curtius)

Prose is speech drawn out and free from the restraint of meter. For the ancients used to call prose productum [drawn out] and straight. Thus, Varro says that in Plautus, the phrase prosis* lectis means ‘read straight through.’ Thus, whatever speech is not contorted by number, but stands straight, is said to be prose, from its drawing forth [producendo] into a straight path.

Others say that prose is so called because it is profuse (profusa), or because it pours forth proruat) and runs on at length, with no limit prescribed to it.

Furthermore, among both the Greeks and the Latins, songs were their chief concern long before prose was. For originally, all things were composed in verse; the pursuit of prose flourished late. Among the Greeks, the first to write prose was Pherecydes the Syrian; among the Romans, Appius Caecus first exercised the composition of prose against Pyrrhus. From that point, others contended in the eloquence of their prose.

*Isidore has conflated prosa with prorsus, meaning “straight onward” or “direct”.


Prosa est producta oratio et a lege metri soluta. Prosum enim antiqui productum dicebant et rectum. Vnde ait Varro apud Plautum “prosis lectis’ significari rectis; unde etiam quae non est perflexa numero, sed recta, prosa oratio dicitur, in rectum producendo. Alii prosam aiunt dictam ab eo, quod sit profusa, vel ab eo, quod spatiosius proruat et excurrat, nullo sibi termino praefinito. Praeterea tam apud Graecos quam apud Latinos longe antiquiorem curam fuisse carminum quam prosae. Omnia enim prius versibus condebantur; prosae autem studium sero viguit. Primus apud Graecos Pherecydes Syrus soluta oratione scripsit; apud Romanos autem Appius Caecus adversus Pyrrhum solutam orationem primus exercuit. Iam exhinc et ceteri prosae eloquentia contenderunt.

Insane in the Membrane

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 6.11:

On Parchment:

The kings of Pergamum were the first to think up membrana (skins) when they were in need of paper. For this reason, the name of Pergamenae has been preserved by the tradition of posterity all the way to our time. They are also called membranes because they are taken from the limbs (membris) of animals. At first, they were of a yellowish color (that is, the color of saffron), but later, white membrana were discovered in Rome. It was discovered that this was inconvenient, since they easily grew dirty, and would harm the eyesight of the reader, since indeed, more experienced architects think that golden ceiling panels should not be placed in libraries and that floors should not be made from any marble other than that from Carystos, since the resplendence of gold weakens while the greenness of the Carystean marble restores the eyesight. For those who learn money-changing place myrtle cloths on the forms of the denarii, and the engravers of gems immediately look at the backs of beetles, than which nothing could be more green, and painters do the same thing in order to restore the labor of their vision by their viridity. Some of the membrana are shining white by nature. The yellow membranum is bicolor, because it is dyed by its maker in one part – that is, it is yellowed. Thus, Persius writes

and now the book and the membrane, bicolor after losing their hairs.

Purple ones are tinged with a purple color, in which liquid gold and silver might show forth in the letters.


DE PERGAMENIS. Pergameni reges cum carta indigerent, membrana primi excogitaverunt. Vnde et pergamenarum nomen hucusque tradente sibi posteritate servatum est. Haec et membrana dicuntur, quia ex membris pecudum detrahuntur. Fiebant autem primum coloris lutei, id est crocei, postea vero Romae candida membrana reperta sunt; quod apparuit inhabile esse, quod et facile sordescant, aciemque legentiuni laedant; cum peritiores architecti neque aurea lacunaria ponenda in bibliothecis putent neque pavimenta alia quam e Carysteo marmore, quod auri fulgor hebetat et Carystei viriditas reficiat oculos. Nam et qui nummulariam discunt, denariorum formis myrteos pannos subiciunt, et gemmarum sculptores scarabaeorum terga, quibus nihil est viridius, subinde respiciunt, et pictores [idem faciunt, ut laborem visus eorum viriditate recreent]. Membrana autem aut candida aut lutea aut purpurea sunt. Candida naturaliter existunt. Luteum membranum bicolor est, quod a confectore una tinguitur parte, id est crocatur. De quo Persius (3,10):

Iam liber et positis bicolor membrana capillis.

Purpurea vero inficiuntur colore purpureo, in quibus aurum et argentum liquescens patescat in litteris.