Customary Triviality and the Second Most Beautiful Danaan

Demetrius, On Style 60-61

“First, anthypallage, as when Homer has “the two rocks, one reaches to the broad sky”. This is far more impressive than if the typical genitive had been used and he had said, two of the rocks, one reaches the broad sky. It is customarily said like that. But everything customary is trivial, and for this reason brings no amazement.

Conider, in turn, Nireus, who is minor himself and whose affairs are minor since he has three ships and a small number of people. The poet makes him great and his group lareger using the double and combined figures of anaphora and asyndeton. He says “Nireus led three ships / Nirieus the son of Aglaiê, Nireus, who was the prettiest man. The anaphora—repetition of the same word, here Nireus—and the asyndeton makes the matter described seem larger, even though it is only two or three ships.”

(60) πρῶτον μὲν τὴν ἀνθυπαλλαγήν, ὡς Ὅμηρος, “οἱ δὲ δύο σκόπελοι ὁ μὲν οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἱκάνει”· πολὺ γὰρ οὕτω μεγαλειότερον ἐναλλαγείσης <τῆς> πτώσεως, ἢ εἴπερ οὕτως ἔφη, “τῶν δὲ δύο σκοπέλων ὁ μὲν οὐρανὸν εὐρύν”· συνήθως γὰρ ἐλέγετο. πᾶν δὲ τὸ σύνηθες μικροπρεπές, διὸ καὶ ἀθαύμαστον.

(61) Τὸν δὲ Νιρέα, αὐτόν τε ὄντα μικρὸν καὶ τὰ πράγματα αὐτοῦ μικρότερα, τρεῖς ναῦς καὶ ὀλίγους ἄνδρας, μέγαν καὶ μεγάλα ἐποίησεν καὶ πολλὰ ἀντ᾿ ὀλίγων, τῷ σχήματι διπλῷ καὶ μικτῷ χρησάμενος ἐξ ἐπαναφορᾶς τε καὶ διαλύσεως. “Νιρεὺς γάρ,” φησι, “τρεῖς νῆας ἄγεν, Νιρεὺς Ἀγλαΐης υἱός, Νιρεύς, ὃς κάλλιστος ἀνήρ”· ἥ τε γὰρ ἐπαναφορὰ τῆς λέξεως ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ ὄνομα τὸν Νιρέα καὶ ἡ διάλυσις πλῆθός τι ἐμφαίνει πραγμάτων, καίτοι δύο ἢ τριῶν ὄντων.

The lines in the Iliad are slightly different (2.671–675)

“Then Nireus came from Symê with three beautiful ships,
Nireus the son of Aglaiê and lord Kharops,
Nireus, the most beautiful man who came to Troy
Of all the Danaans after the blameless son of Peleus.
But he was weak and a meager army followed him.”

Νιρεὺς αὖ Σύμηθεν ἄγε τρεῖς νῆας ἐΐσας
Νιρεὺς ᾿Αγλαΐης υἱὸς Χαρόποιό τ’ ἄνακτος
Νιρεύς, ὃς κάλλιστος ἀνὴρ ὑπὸ ῎Ιλιον ἦλθε
τῶν ἄλλων Δαναῶν μετ’ ἀμύμονα Πηλεΐωνα·
ἀλλ’ ἀλαπαδνὸς ἔην, παῦρος δέ οἱ εἵπετο λαός.

Thebes Vase from this site

Writing Season Advice: Don’t Make Your Clauses Too Long. Or Too Short

For more on punctuation and ancient Greek words, see Demetrius

Demetrius, On Style 4

“Don’t write very long clauses, since your sentence then becomes unmeasured and hard to understand. Even poetry rarely exceeds the bound of a hexametric line, and only a little bit. For it would be ridiculous of poetry had no limits and we would forget what started when the line began! And yet, if the length of some clauses are not proper to prose because it goes on too long, others are too short and would create what is called “dry composition” as in the phrase, “life is short, art long, the right time brief.”

(4) Δεῖ δὲ οὔτε πάνυ μακρὰ ποιεῖν τὰ κῶλα, ἐπεί τοι γίνεται ἄμετρος ἡ σύνθεσις ἢ δυσπαρακολούθητος· οὐδὲ γὰρ ἡ ποιητικὴ ὑπὲρ ἑξάμετρον ἦλθεν, εἰ μή που ἐν ὀλίγοις· γελοῖον γὰρ τὸ μέτρον ἄμετρον εἶναι, καὶ καταλήγοντος τοῦ μέτρου ἐπιλελῆσθαι ἡμᾶς πότε ἤρξατο. οὔτε δὴ τὸ μῆκος τῶν κώλων πρέπον τοῖς λόγοις διὰ τὴν ἀμετρίαν, οὔτε ἡ μικρότης, ἐπεί τοι γίνοιτ᾿ ἂν ἡ λεγομένη ξηρὰ σύνθεσις, οἷον ἡ τοιάδε “ὁ βίος βραχύς, ἡ τέχνη μακρά, ὁ καιρὸς ὀξύς.”

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An early christian inscription

What Must Be Done By Whom?

Cato, Dicta 34

“Whatever fate hands to you to be done, do it seriously.”

Instanter facias, sors quae tibi tradat agenda.

I am in the odd position of having to write the agenda for 3-4 different meetings a month this year. And while preparing to write an agenda–ok, really, while procrastinating–I find myself musing about this word agenda. See, when it comes time to write more than one the Latin-trained pedant in me quails at saying I need to write agendas because agenda is already neuter plural.

(To be fair, agendas is another plural form, but it means something different.)

For those not initiated into the mysteries of Latin borrowings in English, agenda is the Latin for “things which need to be done”.

From the OED

Agenda OED

Sallust, 2nd Letter to Caesar

“Since I have, as it now seems to me, spoken enough about how the people need to be renewed and corrected, I shall speak about what I think you need to do about the senate.”

Nunc quoniam, sicut mihi videor, de plebe renovanda conrigendaque satis disserui, de senatu quae tibi agenda videntur, dicam.

Now, when I see this word and turn the Latin part of my brain on, I automatically think of that most elegant of constructions of obligation, the passive periphrastic. This requires a gerund and a form of “to be” and is periphrastic because its meaning is greater than one might expect from a simple understanding of morphology and semantics.


There are many famous versions of this, but tops are Horace’s Nunc Est Bibendum (“Now is the time to drink”) and Cato’s Cartago Delenda Est (“Carthage Must be destroyed”).

Image result for passive periphrastic explained
From Slideplayer

Seneca, De Otio 4

“What if the delay comes not because of the wise person—if the actor is indeed not absent—but what if there are no things to be done? Will you still allow them to pursue their own soul? What outlook does the wise person take in turning to leisure? Well, the thought that what will be done will be an advantage to generations to come. Our school believes that Zeno and Chrysippus achieved more than if they had led armies, gained honors, or made laws. The laws they made were for all humanity, not merely one state.”

Quodsi per ipsum sapientem non est mora, si non actor deest, sed agenda desunt, ecquid illi secum esse permittes? Quo animo ad otium sapiens secedit? Ut sciat se tum quoque ea acturum, per quae posteris prosit. Nos certe sumus qui dicimus et Zenonem et Chrysippum maiora egisse, quam si duxissent exercitus, gessissent honores, leges tulissent. Quas non uni civitati, sed toti humano generi tulerunt.

But what really gets me going when thinking about the word agenda is that the passive periphrastic takes a dative of agent. So, Horace’s Nunc Est Bibendum is general, but with a mihi could just mean “I need to drink” or with an istis could mean “Those jerks really need to drink”.

When I look at that solitary Agenda at the top of the page, I slip into a reverie–who must do these things? Am I supposed to? Am I enjoining people to help? Should someone else do it? Oh, then I go back to running the meeting. The real secret to surviving lots of meetings is being the one to start them and end them.

Seneca, De tranquilitate Animi

“I imagine that Democritus was thinking of this when he started, “Whoever wants to live peacefully should not do too many things in private or public” when he was thinking about useless matters. For if they are necessary, we must pursue not only many but even endless things. But when our solemn duty does not summon us, are actions should be restrained.”

Hoc secutum puto Democritum ita coepisse: “Qui tranquille volet vivere, nec privatim agat multa nec publice,” ad supervacua scilicet referentem. Nam si necessaria sunt, et privatim et publice non tantum multa sed innumerabilia agenda sunt; ubi vero nullum officium sollemne nos citat, inhibendae actiones.

Seneca, EM 85.32

“It would be articulated correctly, if the state of the wise person and the pilot were not different. The wise person’s job is not to do whatever life offers, but to do everything correctly. A captain’s job, however, is to lead the ship into port in any way possible. Skills are assistants, they ought to do what they promise. Wisdom is the mistress and ruler; arts are the servants of life and wisdom commands.”

Hoc recte diceretur, nisi dissimilis esset gubernatoris condicio et sapientis. Huic enim propositum est in vita agenda non utique, quod temptat, efficere, sed omnia recte facere. Gubernatori propositum est utique navem in portum perducere. Artes ministrae sunt, praestare debent, quod promittunt. Sapientia domina rectrixque est; artes serviunt vitae, sapientia imperat.

Hey D, Where Does Punctuation Come From?

Demetrius, On Style 11

“Aristotle defines the period in this way: The period is a statement which has beginning and an end. He has defined it very well and properly. For, saying the word “period” emphasizes that it begins in a place and ends in a place and is moving toward some goal, like runners once they take off, since the end of the race is already clear to them from the beginning.

This is where the name “period” comes from, an analogy from the circular paths which wind around to an end. Generally speaking, a period is nothing other than a certain kind of composition of words. If you take away its arrangement and circular nature, the subjects remain the same but it is no longer a period.”

(11) Ἀριστοτέλης δὲ ὁρίζεται τὴν περίοδον οὕτως, “περίοδός ἐστι λέξις ἀρχὴν ἔχουσα καὶ τελευτήν,” μάλα καλῶς καὶ πρεπόντως ὁρισάμενος· εὐθὺς γὰρ ὁ τὴν περίοδον λέγων ἐμφαίνει, ὅτι ἦρκταί ποθεν καὶ ἀποτελευτήσει ποι καὶ ἐπείγεται εἴς τι τέλος, ὥσπερ οἱ δρομεῖς ἀφεθέντες· καὶ γὰρ ἐκείνων συνεμφαίνεται τῇ ἀρχῇ τοῦ δρόμου τὸ τέλος. ἔνθεν καὶ περίοδος ὠνομάσθη, ἀπεικασθεῖσα ταῖς ὁδοῖς ταῖς κυκλοειδέσι καὶ περιωδευμέναις. καὶ καθόλου οὐδὲν ἡ περίοδός ἐστι πλὴν ποιὰ σύνθεσις. εἰ γοῦν λυθείη αὐτῆς τὸ περιωδευμένον καὶ μετασυντεθείη, τὰ μὲν πράγματα μένει τὰ αὐτά, περίοδος δὲ οὐκ ἔσται

I was today years old when I realized that our words period, colon, and comma are just Greek words for lengths of clauses used as signs for those things in English. From the Oxford English Dictionary.

Comma Colon Period


Demetrius, On Style 1

“…So too do things called kôla divide and clarify the language of prose”

οὕτω καὶ τὴν ἑρμηνείαν τὴν λογικὴν διαιρεῖ καὶ διακρίνει τὰ καλούμενα κῶλα

mood mind blown GIF


Demetrius, On Style 9

“This kind of brevity of speech in writing is called a komma. A komma is defined as shorter than a kôlon.”

ἡ δὲ τοιαύτη βραχύτης κατὰ τὴν σύνθεσιν κόμμα ὀνομάζεται. ὁρίζονται δ᾿ αὐτὸ ὧδε, κόμμα ἐστὶν τὸ κώλου ἔλαττον

teenage mutant ninja turtles mind blown GIF

Autocorrect came for Armand’s grave and made it acute.

Here’s Archolochus fr. 120… συγκεραυνωθεὶς φρένας.

PSA: Colon (punctuation) vs. Colon (Intestine)

Greek kôlon (κῶλον) can mean body part (as in segment, member), so isocolonic can mean having equal-lengthed phrases or equal-lengthed limbs. But our colon (as in the segment between intestines and anus) comes from Greek kolon (κόλον). To make matters more confusing, later Greek, influenced by the closeness of the two, does present kôlon for the body part.

Here’s Beekes Etymological Dictionary 2010 on each:


Filling Up the Heart

Homer Iliad, 1.517

“And [glaring greatly] cloud-gathering Zeus addressed her”

1.517 Τὴν δὲ μέγ’ ὀχθήσας προσέφη νεφεληγερέτα Ζεύς·

Schol. bT ad Il. 1.517 ex

“This is from filling the spirit/heart up to the top, from the word [river banks]. Or, it is from the word “burden”, the form “overburdened” which is a form of the aorist passive participle, as okhthêsas is.

ex. ὀχθήσας: εἰς ὕψος ἐπάρας τὸν θυμόν, παρὰ τοὺς ὄχθους. ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἄχθος ἀχθήσας, ὅ ἐστιν ἀχθεσθείς, καὶ ὀχθήσας

There is, of course, at least one article about this:

Holoka, James P. “”Looking Darkly” (ϒΠΟΔΡΑΙΔΩ&# X039D;): Reflections on Status and Decorum in Homer.” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-) 113 (1983): 1-16. doi:10.2307/283999.

looking darkly

Later, Holoka concludes:

Looking darkly 2

“Well, Actually, None IS”: Seneca the Elder on Grammatical Pedantry

Seneca the Elder, Suasoriae 2.13, 540 M

“The grammarian Procellus used to claim that [Severus’] line was a solecism because, although he indicated many were speaking, he used to say “this is my day” instead of “this is our day”. And in this he was carping at the best part of a great poem. For, it is feeble if you make it “our” instead of my—all of the verse’s elegance will disappear.

For its greatest decorum is in this line and it comes from the vernacular (for, “this is my day” is something like a proverb). If, in addition, you reconsider the sense, then the grammarian’s pedantry—which should be kept away from all of the better minds—has no place at all. For, they did not all speak together as a chorus might with a leader guiding them, but each one spoke individually, “this is my day.”

Illud Porcellus grammaticus arguebat in hoc versu quasi soloecismum quod, cum plures induxisset, diceret: “hic meus est dies,” non: “hic noster est,” et in sententia optima id accusabat quod erat optimum. Muta enim ut “noster” sit: peribit omnis versus elegantia, in quo hoc est decentissimum, quod ex communi sermone trahitur; nam quasi proverbii loco est: “hic dies meus est”; et, cum ad sensum rettuleris, ne grammaticorum quidem calumnia ab omnibus magnis ingeniis summovenda habebit locum; dixerunt enim non omnes simul tamquam in choro manum ducente grammatico, sed singuli ex iis: “hic meus est dies.”

this is my day, punk.

Insanity and the Rules of Grammar

Sextus Empiricus, Against the Professors 179

“Just as when there is a certain local currency which is accepted in a city, the person who uses this is able to complete whatever his business obligations are in that city without too much bother, but the one who refuses to use it but creates for himself some new strange currency and tries to use that as currency instead is a feel, so too in life the person who does not want to use customary modes of discourse, like the currency, and tries to coin some particular kind of his own, is nearly insane.

And so, if the grammarians agree to give us some skill which they call analogy by which they compel us to speak with one another in accordance with some “Hellenism” then we must show that this skill has no support and that those who want to speak correctly must speak in a non-technical way, using a simple style in life and following the rules which are used by the majority of people.”

ὥσπερ γὰρ ἐν πόλει νομίσματός τινος προχωροῦντος κατὰ τὸ ἐγχώριον ὁ μὲν τούτῳ στοιχῶν δύναται καὶ τὰς ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ πόλει διεξαγωγὰς ἀπαραποδίστως ποιεῖσθαι, ὁ δὲ τοῦτο μὲν μὴ παραδεχόμενος ἄλλο δέ τι καινὸν χαράσσων ἑαυτῷ καὶ τούτῳ νομιστεύεσθαι θέλων μάταιος καθέστηκεν, οὕτω κἀν τῷ βίῳ ὁ μὴ βουλόμενος τῇ συνήθως παραδεχθείσῃ, καθάπερ νομίσματι, ὁμιλίᾳ κατακολουθεῖν ἀλλ᾿ ἰδίαν αὑτῷ τέμνειν μανίας ἐγγὺς ἐστίν. διόπερ εἰ οἱ γραμματικοὶ ὑπισχνοῦνται τέχνην τινὰ τὴν καλουμένην ἀναλογίαν παραδώσειν, δι᾿ ἧς κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνον ἡμᾶς τὸν ἑλληνισμὸν ἀναγκάζουσι διαλέγεσθαι, ὑποδεικτέον ὅτι ἀσύστατός ἐστιν αὕτη ἡ τέχνη, δεῖ δὲ τοὺς ὀρθῶς βουλομένους διαλέγεσθαι τῇ ἀτέχνῳ καὶ ἀφελεῖ κατὰ τὸν βίον καὶ τῇ κατὰ τὴν κοινὴν τῶν πολλῶν συνήθειαν παρατηρήσει προσανέχειν.

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British Library Royal 16 G V f.