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:

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.


Isidore on Popular Types of Publication

Isidore, Etymologiae 6.8:

8. On the Types of Minor Works:

There are three types of little works. The first consists of excerpts, which are called scholia in Greek. In these, those things which seem obscure or difficult are touched upon summarily and in brief. The second type consists of homilies, which the Latins call a verbum, and which are delivered to the people. The third type is tomes, which we call either books or volumes. While homilies are spoken to the crowd, tomes, that is books, are greater disputations. A dialogue is a bringing together of two or more, and the Latins call it a sermo. (For, what the Greeks call dialogos, we call sermones.) The word sermo is employed thus because it is sown (seritur) between each party. Thus, we read in Vergil,

They were sowing many things among themselves.

Sermo however differs from the tractatus [the treatise] and the verbum. For sermo requires another person; the tractatus is self-contained, while the verbum is directed to all. Thus, we have the saying, ‘He delivered a verbum to the populace.’ Commentaries are so called as if they meant cum mente (with mind). For they are interpretations, as the comments upon the law or the Gospel. The apologeticum is a speech of excuse, in which people are accustomed to respond to their accusers, and it rests entirely on either defense or a negation of the accusation; and the term apologeticum is Greek. The panegyricum is a licentious and lascivious type of speaking in honor of kings, in the composition of which people are praised with a heap of lies. This evil arose among the Greeks, whose frivolity puffed up clouds of lies with its skill in speaking and incredible wit. Books of Fasti are those in which either kings or consuls are inscribed, and receive their name from the fasces, that is, from the symbols of power. Thus, Ovid’s books of Fasti are so called because they are derived from kings and consuls. The prooemium is the beginning of speaking, for prooemia are the beginnings of books, which are fashioned at the beginning of a work to prepare the ears of the audience. Many people with experience of Latin simply use this name without translation. But this word, interpreted in our language, is called a praefatio, as if to signify a speaking beforehand. Praecepta are those things which teach us what is to be done or not to be done. In the case of what is to be done, we have ‘Reverence the Lord your God,’ and, ‘Honor your father and mother.’ In the case of what is not to be done, we have ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ and, ‘Don’t steal.’ Similarly, there are gentile precepts which either order or prohibit. There are orders, such as,

Plow naked, and naked sow.

There are prohibitions, such as,

Don’t sow the hazel among the vines, and don’t go for the top of the shoot.

Prayer to St. Isidore of Seville - Warrior of God

VIII. DE GENERIBVS OPVSCVLORVM. Opusculorum, genera esse tria. Primum genus excerpta sunt, quae Graece scholia nuncupantur; in quibus ea quae videntur obscura vel difficilia summatim ac breviter praestringuntur. Secundum genus homiliae sunt, quas Latini verbum appellant, quae proferuntur in populis. Tertium tomi, quos nos libros vel volumina nuncupamus. Homiliae autem ad vulgus loquuntur, tomi vero, id est libri, maiores sunt disputationes. Dialogus est conlatio duorum vel plurimorum, quem Latini sermonem dicunt. Nam quos Graeci dialogos vocant, nos sermones vocamus. Sermo autem dictus quia inter utrumque seritur. Vnde in Vergilio (Aen. 6,160):

Multa inter se serebant.

Tractatus est ***.

Differt autem sermo, tractatus et verbum. Sermo enim alteram eget personam; tractatus specialiter ad se ipsum est; verbum autem ad omnes. Vnde et dicitur: ‘Verbum fecit ad populum.’ Commentaria dicta, quasi cum mente. Sunt enim interpretationes, ut commenta iuris, conmmenta Evangelii. Apologeticum est excusatio, in quo solent quidam accusantibus respondere. In defensione enim aut negatione sola positum est; et est nomen Graecum. Panegyricum est licentiosum et lasciviosum genus dicendi in laudibus regum, in cuius conpositione homines multis mendaciis adulantur. Quod malum a Graecis exortum est, quorum levitas instructa dicendi facultate et copia incredibili multas mendaciorum nebulas suscitavit. Fastorum libri sunt in quibus reges vel consules scribuntur, a fascibus dicti, id est potestatibus. Vnde et Ovidii libri Fastorum dicuntur, quia de regibus et consulibus editi sunt. Prooemium est initium dicendi. Sunt enim prooemia principia librorum, quae ante causae narrationem ad instruendas audientium aures coaptantur. Cuius nomen plerique latinitatis periti sine translatione posuerunt. Hoc autem vocabulum apud nos interpretatum praefatio nuncupatur, quasi praelocutio. Praecepta sunt quae aut quid faciendum aut quid non faciendum docent. Quid faciendum, ut: ‘Dilige [Dominum] Deum tuum,’ et: ‘honora patrem tuum et matrem tuam.’ Quid non faciendum, ut: ‘Non moechaberis,’ ‘Non furtum facies.’  Similiter et gentilium praecepta vel iubent vel vetant. Iubent faciendum, ut (Virg. Georg. 1,299):

Nudus ara, sere nudus.

Vetant, ut (Virg. Georg. 2,299):

Neve inter vites corylum sere, neve flagella summa pete.

Prostitutes and Pelts

Varro, de Lingua Latina 7.84:

“In Terence we read:

He whores (scortatur), he drinks, he smells like perfume at my cost!

The verb to whore (scortari) means quite often to take a prostitute, which is so called from a pelt. For the ancients not only called a pelt a scortum, but even today we call those things which are made of hide and pelt scortea. In some sacred rites and sacrificial places we have it written:

Let not a prostitute (scortum) be admitted

meaning by this that nothing dead should be present. In Atellan farces one may observe that they brought home a little skin (pellicula) instead of a scortum.

Image result for ancient prostitute

Apud Terentium:

Scortatur, potat, olet unguenta de meo.

Scortari est saepius meretriculam ducere, quae dicta a pelle: id enim non solum antiqui dicebant scortum, sed etiam nunc dicimus scortea ea quae e corio ac pellibus sunt facta; in aliquot sacris ac sacellis scriptum habemus:

Ne quod scorteum adhibeatur,

ideo ne morticinum quid adsit. In Atellanis licet animadvertere rusticos dicere se adduxisse pro scorto pelliculam.

Poisoned Arrows and an Etymology for Toxic

Aristotle, On Marvellous things heard, 86 [=837a]

“People claim that among the Celts there is a drug which they call the “arrow” [toxikon]. They report that it induces so quick a death that the Celts’ hunters, whenever they have shot a deer or some other animal, rush ahead to cut off its flesh before it is penetrated completely by the drug both for the sake of using the meat and so that the animal might not rot.

They also claim that the oak tree’s bark has been found to be an antidote for the poison. But others claim that there is a leaf which that call “raven’s leaf” because they have seen ravens, once they taste the poison mentioned before and start to feel the drug’s effect, rush to this leaf and stop their suffering by eating it.”

Φασὶ δὲ παρὰ τοῖς Κελτοῖς φάρμακον ὑπάρχειν τὸ καλούμενον ὑπ᾿ αὐτῶν τοξικόν· ὃ λέγουσιν οὕτω ταχεῖαν ποιεῖν τὴν φθορὰν ὥστε τῶν Κελτῶν τοὺς κυνηγοῦντας, ὅταν ἔλαφον ἢ ἄλλο τι ζῷον τοξεύσωσιν, ἐπιτρέχοντας ἐκ σπουδῆς ἐκτέμνειν τῆς σαρκὸς τὸ τετρωμένον πρὸ τοῦ τὸ φάρμακον διαδῦναι, ἅμα μὲν τῆς προσφορᾶς ἕνεκα, ἅμα δὲ ὅπως μὴ σαπῇ τὸ ζῷον. εὑρῆσθαι δὲ τούτῳ λέγουσιν ἀντιφάρμακον τὸν τῆς δρυὸς φλοιόν· οἱ δ᾿ ἕτερόν τι φύλλον, ὃ καλοῦσι κοράκιον διὰ τὸ κατανοηθῆναι ὑπ᾿ αὐτῶν κόρακα, γευσάμενον τοῦ φαρμάκου καὶ κακῶς διατιθέμενον, ἐπὶ τὸ φύλλον ὁρμήσαντα τοῦτο καὶ καταπιόντα παύσασθαι τῆς ἀλγηδόνος.

Toxic Dictionary
OED is missing this etymology

This comes from the Greek nominal root for bow:


We could also just do this:


The taste of your lips
I’m on a ride
You’re toxic I’m slippin’ under
With a taste of a poison paradise
I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?”

Instruction vs. Art

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 1.1:

Instruction (disciplina) received its name from learning (discendo): for this reason, it can also be called knowledge (scientia), because to know (scire) is derived from to learn (discere), because no one knows something if they have not learned it. Alternatively, it is called disciplina because it is learned in its fullness (discitur plena). Art however is so called because it consists of strict (artis) precepts and rules. Others say that this word is derived from the Greeks, from arete, that is, from virtue, which they called knowledge.

Plato and Aristotle wanted to establish this difference between art and instruction, saying that art (ars) consists of those things which can come about in an alternative way; but instruction (disciplina) deals with those things which cannot be otherwise than they are. For when something is discussed in true disputations, it is instruction; but when something similar to the truth and depending on conjecture is under discussion, it has the name of art.

Isidor von Sevilla.jpeg

DE DISCIPLINA ET ARTE. [1] De disciplina et arte. Disciplina a discendo nomen accepit: unde et scientia dici potest. Nam scire dictum a discere, quia nemo nostrum scit, nisi qui discit. Aliter dicta disciplina, quia discitur plena. [2] Ars vero dicta est, quod artis praeceptis regulisque consistat. Alii dicunt a Graecis hoc tractum esse vocabulum ἀπὸ τῆς ἀρετῆς, id est a virtute, quam scientiam vocaverunt. [3] Inter artem et disciplinam Plato et Aristoteles hanc differentiam esse voluerunt, dicentes artem esse in his quae se et aliter habere possunt; disciplina vero est, quae de his agit quae aliter evenire non possunt. Nam quando veris disputationibus aliquid disseritur, disciplina erit: quando aliquid verisimile atque opinabile tractatur, nomen artis habebit.

For UK Election Day, A Reminder: Sh*tting The Bed in Ancient Greek

“Does anyone know the ancient Greek for shitting the bed?”

It is a sign of the high rhetoric of our sophisticated era that this (perhaps rhetorical) question was posed in Marina Hyde’s Guardian opinion piece on the befuddled blond-con PM Boris Johnson who just happens to have a Classical education.* It is perhaps also a sign of my esteemed place in this ecology of elevated discourse that multiple people tweeted me the question. And, finally, it is a sign of my own academic training that I resisted the urge initially because my first thought was “well, now, Ancient Greek just does not have that idiom.”

But, if it did, well, it might look like one of these:

“to shit the bed,” κλινοχέζειν

“bed-shitter,” κλινοχέστης

“to recline in dung,” κοπροκλίνειν

“shit-sleeper,” σκατοκαθεύδων

(for Ancient Greek students, we have two compound infinitives, a compound agentive noun, and a compound participle!)

There are many Greek words for bed apart from klinê. One could also select koitê, strômnê, lektron, or lekhos. I chose klinê because it may be familiar from the English clinomania. I avoided koitê because it has a sexual use in English and the last thing I would want to do is imply that we are talking about a shit-fucking politician. I chose khezein for the verb because it is, according to Henderson’s Maculate Muse, the “standard term” (188). The ending χέστης is a totally made-up agentive from khezein. The participle  χέσας appears for the “shitter”  at Aristophanes Birds 790.

Based on the parallel βορβορκοίτης (“lying in filth,” Batrakh 220) we could have σκατοκοίτης / κοπροκοίτης (“lying in shit”) but I don’t think this compound gets to the sense of the English idiom which is, essentially, to fuck up so completely that you might as well be lying in a post-mortem pile of shit.

If you want to play along, here’s an earlier post about various words for excrement and here’s another with compounds for beds. Apparently this is a “chiefly US expression” reddit is divided on the origin of the phrase, one person asserting that it has to do with bowel evacuation after death.

Ancient Greek seems sadly deficient in scatological proverbs. I found only one:

Arsenius, 6.70c

“You have fallen into Augeus’ dung: this means “you are immersed in filth”

 Εἰς τὴν Αὐγέου κόπρον ἐμπέπτωκας: ἤγουν ἐβορβορώθης.

*”happens to have” is perhaps unfair and untrue. He has this education because he is part of a moneyed elite who use education as one of many tools to decorate the facade of their elitist pillaging of their country and blithe assumption to the privilege of rule.

h/t @brixtandrew and the others who brought this to my attention

I found this while searching:

Sophron, fr. 11

“They filled their bedroom with shit while dancing”

βαλλίζοντες τὸν θάλαμον σκάτους ἐνέπλησαν

Damox, fr. 2. 15-16

“Rub him down with shit / and expel him from school”

μινθώσας ἄφες / ὡς ἐκ διατριβῆς

Image result for shit the bed
Someone made this. It seemed appropriate

Cock and Bull Etymology

Isidore of Seville, Etymologies 12.7:

The cock [gallus] is named after castration; for among other birds, it alone has its testicles removed, and the ancients used to call eunuchs cocks [galli]. Just as lioness is derived from lion, serpetness from serpent, so too is hen (gallina) derived from cock (gallus). Certain people say that if its limbs are mixed with molten gold, they are consumed entirely.

Fighting roosters on a Roman mosaic

Gallus a castratione vocatus; inter ceteras enim aves huic solo testiculi adimuntur. Veteres enim abscisos gallos vocabant. Sicut autem a leone leaena et a dracone dracaena, ita a gallo gallina. Cuius membra, ut ferunt quidam, si auro liquescenti misceantur, consumi.

Blessed Isles and Denial: Some Etymological Notes

Photios, Lexikon, Μακάρων νῆσος

“the Isle of the Blessed. The Acropolis of Boiotian Thebes in ancient times, according to Armenidas.”

Μακάρων νῆσος· ἡ ἀκρόπολις τῶν ἐν Βοιωτίαι Θηβῶν τὸ παλαιόν, ὡς ᾽Αρμεν<ί>δας.

Hesychius s.v. βουλεψίη

“Boulepsiê: This word is in Xanthos. For he says that when they give birth to a male, they gouge out his eyes with their own hands.”

βουλεψίη· ἡ λέξις παρὰ Ξάνθωι. λέγει δὲ τὰς ᾽Αμαζόνας ἐπειδὰν τέκωσιν ἄρρεν, ἐξορύσσειν αὐτοῦ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοχειρίαι.

BNJ 453 F 1a (=Etym. Magn. S.v. ῞Αρνη)

“Arnê: A nymph and nurse of Poseidon. The nymph Sinoessa is also named Arnê, reportedly, because when she received Poseidon from Rhea to raise him, she denied it (aparnêsato) when Kronos came asking about him. For this she was called Arnê [denial]. That’s the account of Theseus in the third book of his Korinthian Affairs.”

῎Αρνη· νύμφη, τροφὸς Ποσειδῶνος. εἴρηται δὲ καὶ ῎Αρνη ἡ νύμφη Σινόεσσα καλουμένη, ὅτι τὸν Ποσειδῶνα λαβοῦσα παρὰ τῆς ῾Ρέας ἐκτρέφειν, πρὸς τὸν Κρόνον ζητοῦντα ἀπηρνήσατο, καὶ ἐντεῦθεν ῎Αρνη ὠνομάσθη. οὕτω Θησεὺς ἐν Κορινθιακῶν τρίτωι.

Hieronymus Löschenkohl Joseph II. im Elysium.jpg
Hieronymus Löschenkohl (1753–1807): Ankunft Josephs II. in Elysium, kolorierter Stich, 1790