Lies About Etymology and Etymological Lies

Here’s a recent piece on Greek concepts of the truth from The Conversation. It is part of a series developed with WBUR’s On Point, called “In Search of Truth” ( the first episode).

Plato, Cratylus 421b

“It seems that the word onoma [name] is made up from a phrase which means that “this is what we happen to be searching for, the word”. You can recognize this very thing better when we say onomaston, for this clearly reflects that it is about “that which is search” [hon hou masma estin].

Truth [alêtheia] is similar to the rest in this: for the divine movement of existnence seems to be expressed by this utterance—a-lê-theia—as if it were divine wandering, theia – ousa – alê. But pseudos—fallacy—is the opposite of movement. For, in turn, when something is criticized and is held back and is compelled to be silent, then it is like people who are asleep, or those who kath – eudousi. The psi which is added to the beginning of the word hides the true meaning of the name.

 Ἔοικε τοίνυν ἐκ λόγου ὀνόματι συγκεκροτημένῳ, λέγοντος ὅτι τοῦτ᾿ ἔστιν ὄν, οὗ τυγχάνει ζήτημα ὄν, τὸ ὄνομα. μᾶλλον δὲ ἂν αὐτὸ γνοίης ἐν ᾧ λέγομεν τὸ ὀνομαστόν· ἐνταῦθα γὰρ σαφῶς λέγει τοῦτο εἶναι ὂν οὗ μάσμα ἐστίν. ἡ δ᾿ ἀλήθεια, καὶ τοῦτο τοῖς ἄλλοις ἔοικε· ἡ γὰρ θεία τοῦ ὄντος φορὰ ἔοικε προσειρῆσθαι τούτῳ τῷ ῥήματι, τῇ ἀληθείᾳ, ὡς θεία οὖσα ἄλη. τὸ δὲ ψεῦδος τοὐναντίον τῇ φορᾷ· πάλιν γὰρ αὖ λοιδορούμενον ἥκει τὸ ἰσχόμενον καὶ τὸ ἀναγκαζόμενον ἡσυχάζειν, ἀπείκασται δὲ τοῖς καθεύδουσι· τὸ ψῖ δὲ προσγενόμενον ἐπικρύπτει τὴν βούλησιν τοῦ ὀνόματος·

Plato, Cratylus 421d

“Say that if we do not recognize a word then it is foreign in origin. This is perhaps mostly true for some of them, and it may be impossible to discover the first words because of their antiquity. For this reason it would not at all be surprising, when words are twisted in every which way, if a really ancient Greek word would be no different from a current foreign one.”

Φάναι, ὃ ἂν μὴ γιγνώσκωμεν, βαρβαρικόν τι τοῦτ᾿ εἶναι. εἴη μὲν οὖν ἴσως ἄν τι τῇ ἀληθείᾳ καὶ τοιοῦτον αὐτῶν, εἴη δὲ κἂν ὑπὸ παλαιότητος τὰ πρῶτα τῶν ὀνομάτων ἀνεύρετα εἶναι· διὰ γὰρ τὸ πανταχῇ στρέφεσθαι τὰ ὀνόματα οὐδὲν θαυμαστὸν ἂν εἴη, εἰ ἡ παλαιὰ φωνὴ πρὸς τὴν νυνὶ βαρβαρικῆς μηδὲν διαφέρει.

Plato and Socrates

Ridiculous Etymologies: New York Times Edition

Folk etymology is a long-lived tradition empowering writers to fabricate etymological explanations to suit their current interpretive and argumentative needs.

Procrastinate: To be In favor of Being Out of Control from the New York Times, March 25, 2019.

NYTimesProcrast

Here’s what those joyless pedants of the Oxford English Dictionary have to say about it:

Procras OED

Akrasia

Just in case you were wondering, the ancient Romans and Greeks did have the concept of procrastination. Here are some passages I collected about it.

But where would we be without hermeneutically adventurous lexicography? Plato makes it a centerpiece of his Cratylus! And we have dictionaries dedicated to it:

“Lipless Achilles” Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 182

“Akhilleus: [this name comes from] lessening grief, for Achilles was a doctor. Or it is because of the woe, which is pain, he brought to his mother and the Trojans. Or it is from not touching his lips to food [khilê]. For he had no serving of milk at all, but was fed with stag-marrow by Kheiron. This is why he was hailed by the Myrmidons in the following way, according to Euphoriôn:

He came to Phthia without ever tasting any food
This is why the Myrmidons named him Achilles.”

᾿Αχιλλεύς: Παρὰ τὸ ἄχος λύειν· ἰατρὸς γὰρ ἦν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ ἄχος (ὅ ἐστι λύπην) ἐπενεγκεῖν τῇ μητρὶ καὶ τοῖς ᾿Ιλιεῦσιν. ῍Η διὰ τὸ μὴ θίγειν χείλεσι χιλῆς, ὅ ἐστι τροφῆς· ὅλως γὰρ οὐ μετέσχε γάλακτος, ἀλλὰ μυελοῖς ἐλάφων ἐτράφη ὑπὸ Χείρωνος. ῞Οτι ὑπὸ Μυρμιδόνων ἐκλήθη, καθά φησιν Εὐφορίων,

᾿Ες Φθίην χιλοῖο κατήϊε πάμπαν ἄπαστος.
τοὔνεκα Μυρμιδόνες μιν ᾿Αχιλέα φημίξαντο.

Odysseus Was Born on the Road in the Rain: Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 615

“The name Odysseus has been explained through the following story. For they claim that when Antikleia, Odysseus’ mother, was pregnant she was travelling [hodeuousan] on Mt. Neritos in Ithaka, and it began to rain [husantos] terribly Because of her labor and fear she collapsed and gave birth to Odysseus there. So, he obtained is name in this way, since Zeus, on the road [hodon] rained [hûsen].”

᾿Οδυσσεύς: Εἴρηται ἀπὸ ἱστορίας. ᾿Αντίκλειαν γάρ φασι τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως μητέρα ἐγκύμονα ὁδεύουσαν τὸ Νήριτον τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης ὄρος, ὕσαντος πολὺ τοῦ Διὸς, ὑπὸ ἀγωνίας τε καὶ φόβου καταπεσοῦσαν ἀποτεκεῖν τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα. Οὕτω ταύτης τῆς ὀνομασίας ἔτυχεν, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὗσεν ὁ Ζεύς.

It is more typical to derive Odysseus’ name from the verb odussomai, which means something like “being hateful, being hated”.  Autolykos, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, is reported to have named him in the Odyssey (19.407–409).

“I have come to this point hated [odussamenos] by many—
Both men and women over the man-nourishing earth.
So let his name be Ody[s]seus…”

πολλοῖσιν γὰρ ἐγώ γε ὀδυσσάμενος τόδ’ ἱκάνω,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξὶν ἀνὰ χθόνα βωτιάνειραν·
τῷ δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς ὄνομ’ ἔστω ἐπώνυμον…

Rhadamanthus: Absurd Etymologies And Some Stories

Etymologicum Magnum

“Radamanthus: [the origin of this name] is either that he went crazy [emanê] over roses [roda] trampled by a bull or that he was educated [epaideuthê*] among the Trojans in Rhodes.”

 ῾Ραδάμανθυς: ῍Η ὅτι περὶ τὰ ῥόδα ἐμάνη τὰ ὑπὸ τοῦ ταύρου προϊέμενα, ἢ ὅτι ἐν ῾Ρόδῳ παρὰ ταῖς ᾿Ιλιάδεσιν ἐπαιδεύθη.

*The author is thinking of some form of manthanô here to get –manthus.

I have yet to find explanations for either of these accounts. So, to make up for it, here are some other stories about Rhadamanthus.

Dio. Sic. 5.78-9

“They claim that Radamanthus provided the most just judgments of all and also imposed the most inflexible punishment for raidings, and sacrilege, and other wicked deeds. He also is said to have established [these laws] in not a few islands and much of the land of Asia near the sea, since they were willing to put themselves in his hands thanks to his sense of justice. They also claim that Rhadamanthus handed the kingship over to one of his own children, Eruthros, from whom the Eruthrians were named.

People also say that Khios entrusted itself to Oinopiôn, the son of Ariadne, Minos’ daughter whom some claim was Dionysus’ son and learned from his father everything about wine-making. They also claim that Rhadamanthus granted a city or island to each of the leaders around him: he gave Lemnos to Thoas, Kurnos to Enuos, Peparêthos to Staphulos, Marôneia to Euanthos, Paros to Alkaios, Dêlos to Aniônos, and Andros, which was named for him, to Andros. Thanks to the exaggeration of his sense of justice, people have told the myth that he was made a judge in Hades and he distinguished the righteous men from the wicked. This same honor has been given to Minos, since he ruled most lawfully and was especially solicitous of justice. The third brother was Sarpedon.”

          ῾Ραδάμανθυν δὲ λέγουσι τάς τε κρίσεις πάντων δικαιοτάτας πεποιῆσθαι καὶ τοῖς λῃσταῖς καὶ ἀσεβέσι καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις κακούργοις ἀπαραίτητον ἐπενηνοχέναι τιμωρίαν. κατακτήσασθαι δὲ καὶ νήσους οὐκ ὀλίγας καὶ τῆς ᾿Ασίας πολλὴν τῆς παραθαλαττίου χώρας, ἁπάντων ἑκουσίως παραδιδόντων ἑαυτοὺς διὰ τὴν δικαιοσύνην. τὸν δὲ ῾Ραδάμανθυν ᾿Ερύθρῳ μὲν ἑνὶ τῶν αὑτοῦ παίδων παραδοῦναι τὴν βασιλείαν τῶν δι’ ἐκεῖνον ᾿Ερυθρῶν ὀνομασθεισῶν, Οἰνοπίωνι δὲ τῷ ᾿Αριάδνης τῆς Μίνω Χίον ἐγχειρίσαι φασίν, ὃν ἔνιοι μυθολογοῦσι Διονύσου γενόμενον μαθεῖν παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς τὰ περὶ τὴν οἰνοποιίαν. τῶν δ’ ἄλλων τῶν περὶ αὐτὸν ἡγεμόνων ἑκάστῳ νῆσον ἢ πόλιν δωρήσασθαι λέγουσι τὸν ῾Ραδάμανθυν, Θόαντι μὲν Λῆμνον, ᾿Ενυεῖ δὲ Κύρνον, Σταφύλῳ δὲ Πεπάρηθον, Εὐάνθει δὲ Μαρώνειαν, ᾿Αλκαίῳ δὲ Πάρον, ᾿Ανίωνι δὲ Δῆλον, ᾿Ανδρεῖ δὲ τὴν ἀπ’ ἐκείνου κληθεῖσαν ῎Ανδρον. διὰ δὲ τὴν ὑπερβολὴν τῆς περὶ αὐτὸν δικαιοσύνης μεμυθολογῆσθαι δικαστὴν αὐτὸν ἀποδεδεῖχθαι καθ’ ᾅδου καὶ διακρίνειν τοὺς εὐσεβεῖς καὶ τοὺς πονηρούς. τετευχέναι δὲ τῆς αὐτῆς τιμῆς καὶ τὸν Μίνω, βεβασιλευκότα νομιμώτατα καὶ μάλιστα δικαιοσύνης πεφροντικότα. τὸν δὲ τρίτον ἀδελφὸν Σαρπηδόνα

Apollodorus 2.64

“[Linos] was the brother of Orpheus. After he arrived at Thebes and became Theban, he was struck with his cithara by Herakles and died. Herakles killed him because he was angry at him for striking him. When some were demanding that he pay the penalty for murder, Herakles invoked the law of Radamanthus which said that whoever defended himself against a man who began the injustice was immune to punishment. Thus he was acquitted.”

οὗτος δὲ ἦν ἀδελφὸς ᾿Ορφέως· ἀφικόμενος δὲ εἰς Θήβας καὶ Θηβαῖος γενόμενος ὑπὸ ῾Ηρακλέους τῇ κιθάρᾳ πληγεὶς ἀπέθανεν· ἐπιπλήξαντα γὰρ αὐτὸν ὀργισθεὶς ἀπέκτεινε. δίκην δὲ ἐπαγόντων τινῶν αὐτῷ φόνου, παρανέγνω νόμον ῾Ραδαμάνθυος λέγοντος, ὃς ἂν ἀμύνηται τὸν χειρῶν ἀδίκων κατάρξαντα, ἀθῷον εἶναι, καὶ οὕτως ἀπελύθη.

Image result for rhadamanthus ancient greek

Do You Hate Absurd Etymologies?

Kallierges, Etymologicum Magnum 615

“The name Odysseus has been explained through the following story. For they claim that when Antikleia, Odysseus’ mother, was pregnant she was travelling [hodeuousan] on Mt. Neritos in Ithaka, and it began to rain [husantos] terribly Because of her labor and fear she collapsed and gave birth to Odysseus there. So, he obtained is name in this way, since Zeus, on the road [hodon] rained [hûsen].”

᾿Οδυσσεύς: Εἴρηται ἀπὸ ἱστορίας. ᾿Αντίκλειαν γάρ φασι τὴν ᾿Οδυσσέως μητέρα ἐγκύμονα ὁδεύουσαν τὸ Νήριτον τῆς ᾿Ιθάκης ὄρος, ὕσαντος πολὺ τοῦ Διὸς, ὑπὸ ἀγωνίας τε καὶ φόβου καταπεσοῦσαν ἀποτεκεῖν τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα. Οὕτω ταύτης τῆς ὀνομασίας ἔτυχεν, ἐπειδὴ κατὰ τὴν ὁδὸν ὗσεν ὁ Ζεύς.

It is more typical to derive Odysseus’ name from the verb odussomai, which means something like “being hateful, being hated”.  Autolykos, Odysseus’ maternal grandfather, is reported to have named him in the Odyssey (19.407–409).

“I have come to this point hated [odussamenos] by many—
Both men and women over the man-nourishing earth.
So let his name be Ody[s]seus…”

πολλοῖσιν γὰρ ἐγώ γε ὀδυσσάμενος τόδ’ ἱκάνω,
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξὶν ἀνὰ χθόνα βωτιάνειραν·
τῷ δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς ὄνομ’ ἔστω ἐπώνυμον…

Even in antiquity there was debate about how to interpret odussamenos. A scholion offers three explanations: “[someone] who is hated. Or who has rage. Or has harmed [someone]” (ὀδυσσάμενος] μισηθείς· ἢ ὀργὴν ἀγαγών· ἢ βλάψας.)

And many have seen playing with this name-verb accord earlier in the epic when Athena asks Zeus (1.60-62)

“…Didn’t Odysseus please you
By making sacrifices along the ships of the Argives
In broad Troy? Why are you so hateful [ôdusao] to him, Zeus?”

… οὔ νύ τ’ ᾿Οδυσσεὺς
᾿Αργείων παρὰ νηυσὶ χαρίζετο ἱερὰ ῥέζων
Τροίῃ ἐν εὐρείῃ; τί νύ οἱ τόσον ὠδύσαο, Ζεῦ;”

Sophocles gets in on this (Fr. 965):

“I am called Odysseus for evil deeds correctly:
For many who have been my enemy hate [ôdusanto] me.”

ὀρθῶς δ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς εἰμ’ ἐπώνυμος κακῶν•
πολλοὶ γὰρ ὠδύσαντο δυσμενεῖς ἐμοί

Modern scholars get in on the game too Marót in Acta Antiqua 8 (1960) 1-6 suggests that the name is developed from the scar (οὐλή=oulê) by which Odysseus is recognized, thus explaining in part the Latin (and Etruscan) variant Ulysses.

Image result for Odysseus ancient Greek

For a succinct discussion, see Norman Austin 2009, 92-93 from his essay “Name Magic in the Odyssey” in Lillian Doherty’s Oxford Readings in Classical Studies: Homer’s Odyssey (originally printed in California Studies in Classical Antiquity 5 (1972) 1-19, available through JSTOR). See also W. B. Stanford’s “The Homeric Etymology of the Name Odysseus.” Classical Philology 47 (1952) 209-213.