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

Diction-Police! Don’t Archaize or Neologize!

From Aulus Gellius’ Attic Nights 11.7

One Should Avoid Very Archaic Words That Have Become Antiquated and Fallen Out of Use

“Using words that are obsolete and worn down seems as affected as using uncustomary or new ones of harsh or unpleasant character. Personally, I find more annoying and offensive those words that are new, unknown, or previously unheard rather than those that are merely colloquial and vulgar. I do insist, however, that phrases seem new when they are unused and abandoned, even if they are really ancient. In truth, it is a common vice of learning late in life, what the Greeks call opsimathia, when there’s something you’ve never said and of which you were ignorant for a while, which, once you have begun to understand it, you manage to work it into any place or into any matter you’re discussing.

For example, at Rome we met an experienced man famous for his work as a public defender who had achieved a rapid and incomplete education. When he was speaking to the prefect of the city and wanted to say that a certain many lived on poor and miserable food—he ate bread made of bran and drank old, spoiled wine—he said “this Roman knight eats apluda and drinks flocces.” Everyone who was there looked at one another, at first rather severely and with confused, inquiring faces wondering what either word meant: then, as if he had spoken in Etruscan or Gallic, they all laughed together. That man had read that ancient farmers had called grain apluda—the word is used by Plautus in a comedy called Astraba, if that is a Plautine comedy. Similarly, “flocces” in ancient usage indicated the lees of a vine pressed from grapes, like the fruit from olives, a thing he read in Caecilius’ Polumeni. And he had saved these two words for decorating a speech!”


Verbis antiquissimis relictisque iam et desitis minime utendum.

Verbis uti aut nimis obsoletis exculcatisque aut insolentibus novitatisque durae et inlepidae par esse delictum videtur. Sed molestius equidem culpatiusque esse arbitror verba nova, incognita, inaudita dicere quam involgata et sordentia. Nova autem videri dico etiam ea, quae sunt inusitata et desita, tametsi sunt vetusta. Est adeo id vitium plerumque serae eruditionis, quam Graeci opsimathian appellant, ut, quod numquam didiceris, diu ignoraveris, cum id scire aliquando coeperis, magni facias quo in loco cumque et quacumque in re dicere. Veluti Romae nobis praesentibus vetus celebratusque homo in causis, sed repentina et quasi tumultuaria doctrina praeditus, cum apud praefectum urbi verba faceret et dicere vellet inopi quendam miseroque victu vivere et furfureum panem esitare vinumque eructum et fetidum potare, “hic” inquit “eques Romanus apludam edit et flocces bibit”.

Aspexerunt omnes, qui aderant, alius alium, primo tristiores turbato et requirente voltu, quidnam illud utriusque verbi foret; post deinde, quasi nescio quid Tusce aut Gallice dixisset, universi riserunt. Legerat autem ille “apludam” veteres rusticos frumenti furfurem dixisse idque a Plauto in comoedia, si ea Plauti est, quae Astraba inscripta est, positum esse. Item “flocces” audierat prisca voce significare vini faecem e vinaceis expressam, sicuti fraces oleis, idque aput Caecilium in Poltimenis legerat, eaque sibi duo verba ad orationum ornamenta servaverat.

Image result for medieval manuscript lexicography
Cod. Guelf. 956 Helmst., 221v

Vomax, Not a Roman Hero

Earlier in the year we posted some Greek words for vomitingThat post and this were inspired by real life events. 

Vomax, “given to vomiting”

Vomer, “ploughshare”; “membrum virile

Vomica: “sore, boil”; “an evil”

Vomicosus: “full of sores or tumors”

Vomicus: “ulcerous”

Vomificus: “that which causes vomiting”

Vomifluus: “flowing with pus”

Vomitio: “a spewing”

Vomitor: “one who vomits”

Vomitorious: “that produces vomiting, emetic”

Vomitus: “a vomiting”

Vomo: “to puke”, cf. Greek ἐμέω, *ϝεμ-


Image result for Ancient Roman Vomiting

A Spurious Etymology for ‘Venus’

Varro, On the Latin Language, Book V, 61-2

“For this reason, everybody, when it is too hot or too moist, will either die or, if it persists, will be sterile. Summer and winter bear witness to this, since in the first, the air is hot and the wheat dries up, while in the other nature does not long to struggle with the rain and the cold to bring new life—instead, it waits for spring. Therefore, the roots of creation are two-fold: fire and water. For this reason there are placed at the threshold during wedding ceremonies since here is where things join and since the fire is male, which the semen is there, and the water is female, since a fetus develops from her moisture and the force of their binding together is Venus. This is why the comic poet says “Venus is his conqueress, do you see this?” not because Venus wants to conquer [vincere] but because she plans to bind [vincire].”


Inde omne corpus, ubi nimius ardor aut humor, aut interit aut, si manet, sterile. Cui testis aestas et hiems, quod in altera aer ardet et spica aret, in altera natura ad nascenda cum imbre et frigore luctare non volt et potius ver expectat. Igitur causa nascendi duplex: ignis et aqua. Ideo ea nuptiis in limine adhibentur, quod coniungitur hic, et mas ignis, quod ibi semen, aqua femina, quod fetus ab eius humore, et horum vinctionis vis Venus.

Hinc comicus:
Huic victrix Venus, videsne haec?
Non quod vincere velit Venus, sed vincire.

On Appreciating a Tree Without Seeing the Roots

Varro, On the Latin Language VII 1.3

“Therefore, when a man has said many things well about the origins of words, it is better to regard him well rather than to find fault with someone who has not been able to contribute anything. This is especially true since the art of etymology claims that it is not possible to find the origin of all words—just as it is not possible to say why a useful medicine is good for healing. Just so, if I do not know about the roots of a tree, I am able still to say that a pear is from a branch and a branch is from a tree whose roots I do no see.”

Igitur de originibus verborum qui multa dixerit commode, potius boni consulendum, quam qui aliquid nequierit reprehendendum, praesertim quom dicat etymologice non omnium verborum posse dici causam, ut qui ac qua re res utilis sit ad medendum medicina; neque si non norim radices arboris, non posse me dicere pirum esse ex ramo, ramum ex arbore, eam ex radicibus quas non video.


talking trees


Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek

Diogenianus, On Proverbs, Introduction 1.1-14

“Some say that the proverb is named from paths [oimai]. This is what roads used to be called. And men, however many things they found to be useful in common, they wrote these things along crowd-bearing roads so that the many people  who pass by might get some profit from them. They also say that [proverbs] this way the sayings of wise men may be known, like the passed-down words of the Pythagoreans. But some say that they are called proverbs from the fact that they illustrate something similar to what they are saying, that they happen to be parallels. There is also then the proverb that it a kind of allegory. Similar to this are the Aesopic fable, the Subaritic story, the Kuprion, the Libyan fable, the Scythian proverb. A fable, then,is that adaptation of advice for human beings through a story-telling remodeling from speechless animals and natural events.”

Διογενιανοῦ περὶ παροιμιῶν.

     Τὴν παροιμίαν ὀνομάζεσθαί φασί τινες ἀπὸ τῶν οἴμων· οὕτω δὲ αἱ ὁδοὶ ἐκαλοῦντο. Οἱ δ’ ἄνθρωποι, ὅσα κοινωφελῆ εὕρισκον, ταῦτα κατὰ λεωφόρους ὁδοὺς ἀνέγραφον ὑπὲρ τοῦ πλείονας ἐντυγχάνοντας τῆς ὠφελείας μεταλαμβάνειν· οὕτω καὶ τὰ τῶν σοφῶν ἀποφθέγματα γνωθῆναί φασι, καὶ τὰ Πυθαγορικὰ παραγγέλματα.  ῎Ενιοι δέ φασι προσηγορεῦσθαι τὰς παροιμίας ἀπὸ τοῦὅμοιόν τι ἐφ’ οἷς λέγονται δηλοῦν παροιμίας τυγχανούσας. ῎Εστι δὲ ἡ παροιμία τρόπος καὶ τῆς καλουμένης ἀλληγορίας· παράκειται δὲ αὐτῇ λόγος αἶνος Αἰσώπειος, Καρικὸς αἶνος, Συβαριτικὸς λόγος, Κύπριος, Λιβυκὸς αἶνος, Μαισωνικὴ παροιμία· μάρσιπος. Αἶνος μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ κατ’ ἀνάπλασιν μυθικὴν ἀναφερόμενος ἀπὸ ἀλόγων ζώων ἢ φυτῶν ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπων παραίνεσιν.

In an episode from the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (102: “Darmok”), the crew of the Enterprise encounter an alien race whose language confounds them—although they understand the individual words, the sentences end up being just beyond their grasp. Over the course of the episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard realizes that the Tamarians’ communication operates largely through a shared heritage of proverbs—here treated as ‘allegory’—and eventually manages to grasp enough to convey some meaning to his new contact.


Apart from the fact that the episode has Picard quoting from Gilgamesh and brandishing a copy of the Homeric Hymns near its end (one of the  episode’s writers earned a BA in Classics!), it is most fascinating for the explanatory exchange presented in the clip above.

Commander Data: “They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mythohistorical account.”

Counselor Troi: “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. Tt embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes, it’s how they communicate and how they think.

Commander Data: “The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but not the vocabulary.”

This is all pretty cutting edge linguistic material for the time and for television at any time. The comments on imagery and emotion and their integral connection to communication draw on the work of Lakoff and Johnson on cognitive metaphor, similar work by Mark Turner on image schemas, and a whole range of modern studies on the way that language works in the human brain.  At the same time, it also reflects an adaptation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the basic idea that language shapes the thought processes of its speakers at a cognitive level—in its strongest form, that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world.

Turner 1996, 4-5:  “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

Continue reading “Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek”

Derived from Dico: Dictator, Dictum, Addicted(?)

Varro, De Lingua Latina 6.61-2

“The Latin verb dico has a Greek origin, the Greek verb deiknuô which means “to show”. From this meaning, as well, comes dicare “to show, dedicate” as when Ennus writes: “I say that this circus has six little turning posts.” From this word as well we get iudicare, “to judge” because the ius “right thing” is spoken. And from this we get iudex because the judge speaks the judgment (ius dicat) once he has the authority. From the same place, we have dedicate because the ending comes from speaking (Dicendo) certain words.  Thus when a temple is dedicated by a magistrate it is done by speaking after the pontiff. From dicere, from speaking, is indicium (“information”); from this he declares war (indicit); “has invited people” to a funeral (indixit), he has postponed a day (prodixit), he has submitted a judgment (addixit). From this root as well we have named a dictum (“saying”) from farce and also the adjective dictiosus  (“witty”). From this root we also have dicta, orders given by leaders in a military cample; and we also have dictata, dictation exercises in school. And we also have dictator as leader of the people because he must be called (dici) by the counsel. Some old phrase come from this too such as addici nummo (“to be betrayed for a penny”) or dicis causa “for the sake of judicial precedent” and addictus, to be bound to someone.”


Dico originem habet Graecam, quod Graeci deiknyo. Hinc etiam dicare, ut ait, Ennius:

Dico VI hunc dicare circum metulas.

Hinc iudicare, quod tunc ius dicatur; hinc iudex, quod ius dicat accepta potestate; hinc dedicat, id est quibusdam verbis dicendo finit: sic, enim aedis sacra a magistratu pontifice praeeunte, dicendo dedicatur. Hinc, ab dicendo, indicium; hinc illa: indicit bellum, indixit funus, prodixit diem, addixit iudicium; hinc appellatum dictum in mimo, ac dictiosus; hinc in manipulis castrensibus dicta ab ducibus; hinc dictata in ludo; hinc dictator magister populi, quod is a consule debet dici; hinc antiqua illa addici numo et dicis causa et addictus.