Category Archives: words the Greeks gave us

Beware of the Barbarians

Hello,

This week’s word is barbarian and is with thanks to the No Such Thing as a Fish podcast who are still broadcasting their witty and intelligent musings about odd facts every week, now from their individual homes, which can’t be easy. They mentioned the origin of barbarian in a recent episode and it went straight onto my “to investigate” list.

My favourite barbarians

Barbarian entered the English language as an adjective in the mid 1300s to describe somebody or something which was from another nation or culture. Initially there was no negative connotation to this word. It wasn’t until the late 1500s that it came to mean something or somebody uncivilised or savage. I found this surprising as I assumed the word came from Roman times to describe anybody who lived outside the empire. Given that barbarians over-ran Rome a few times in its later, declining, years I assumed the Romans would have seen the barbarians in a negative light.

Looking back further I discovered the word barbarian actually comes from the Greeks, not the Romans. The ancient Greeks had a plural noun barbaroi which meant “all that are not Greek” and was especially applied to the Medes and Persians (both lived in the area now known as Iran). The word arose from a root word barbar which was meant to describe the way the foreign speech of the Persians and Medes sounded to Greek listeners. You know the way background actors in movies sometimes mutter “rhubarb” to make a basic speech noise? Well the Greeks would have thought they were saying “barbar“. Hence the barbaroi.

From barbaroi the word barbaros (foreign, strange, ignorant) arrived in Greek. Basically anybody who didn’t speak Greek was barbaros. Later the ancient Romans, who were technically barbaros themselves, adopted the word as barbarus and applied it to any tribes or nations who weren’t Roman or Greek. This moved to Medieval Latin at barbarinus and Old French as barbarin (which gives us Berber) and by the time it reached English it was spelled barbarian.

Along the way the term has been used to single out foreigners in other times and languages too. In Renaissance Italy it was used to describe any non-Italian and it has been used to translate Chinese words of contempt for foreigners also.

Sadly, so long as groups have a concept of “us” there will always be a concept of “them” and they are often called barbarians, no matter how sophisticated their language and culture.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

p.s. I’ve made it to 27,067 words in my CampNaNo serial “The Librarian’s Secret Diary”. Four days of writing to go and it will be launching on Channillo.com on Wednesday 6th of May. It’s been great fun to write and hopefully will be an entertaining read for anybody who has ever wondered what really goes on behind the shelves in the library.

Jinx

Hello,

This week’s word is jinx with thanks to the excellent Haggard Hawks twitter account. They mentioned a while back that the jinx was originally a bird and it intrigued me so I dug a little deeper.

The first thing I found is that this word has entered the English language twice – once in the USA and once in England but at very different time periods.

In the 1690s, jynx was used to describe a spell or charm. It was sometimes also spelled as jyng (the Tudors were erratic spellers). The word arose from iynx in Latin and in Greek which was a bird used in witchcraft and divination.

A shell bat in the Vendee, France – symbol of witchcraft

The jynx, or wryneck as it’s known these days, is a small woodpecker bird with dull brown and grey plumage native to Europe whose ability to turn its head through 180 degrees gives rise to its modern name. I wasn’t able to discover exactly how it was used in divination (although given the ancients’s love for reading entrails I fear the bird might not have survived the rites), but it features in Greek mythology too. In one story Lynx was a nymph, the daughter of Pan and Echo. She cast a love spell on Zeus and Hera turned her into a bird called the iynx in revenge. In another story she dared to pit her musical talent against the muses and was turned into a bird for her presumption. The bird could be used to create love through witchcraft.

In British English that connection with misfortune (although not always in love) persists. If I say I don’t want to jinx something it means that I don’t to cause it to fail.

Jinx only appeared in American English around 1911 and it arose originally as baseball slang.

The New York Mets, City Park

If a player or team is subject to a jinx then they will have a losing streak until they can shake it off. It’s unclear if the Greek myths, the bird, or some other source brought jinxes to baseball, but there they have stayed.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Myriad

Hello,

This week’s word is myriad (pronunciation here) because it’s a favourite of mine. A myriad is a very large number of something. You might have a myriad of midges trying to bite you on a country walk, or a myriad of choices when selecting the right dress for the ball (hey, I can dream!).

In my case I’ve been looking at the vendor list for a yarn festival later this month, Woollinn, and reviewing a myriad of indie dyers and their yarns. I want them all, but am trying to be logical and only buy what I need and will actually use. This is a major challenge for any crafter.

A myriad of yarns

Words for large numbers in languages are often fun to explore and myriad is no exception. Most cultures manage words for one, two, or even up to ten but in early languages the tendency thereafter was to settle on a word for “many” and use that for everything from 25 to ten million.

Myriad entered English during the 1500s as the word for 10,000 or an indefinitely large number. It came to English from the Middle French word myriade, which in turn was a borrowing from Latin myrias (ten thousand). Myrias came from Greek myrioi which either meant 10,000 or countless, infinite and boundless. So it appears that even the wise and wonderful ancient Greeks struggled to imagine counting above 9,999.

I have counted my yarn stash and I don’t have 10,000 balls of wool awaiting my attention so I think I may purchase a skein or two at the festival after all.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Ostracise

Hello,

This week’s word is ostracise (or ostracize for North American readers) because it relates to voting and I’ve been enjoying the drama of the European Parliament and local council elections here all weekend.

To ostracise somebody (in English since the late 1500s) is to exclude them from a community, an effective punishment for not obeying social rules. Ostracise is a word the Greeks gave us and the story behind it is intriguing.

Not fitting in with the others

The original Greek word was ostrakon which means broken pottery. In Athens, and other Greek city-states, a citizen who was perceived to be dangerous to the state could be banished for four or ten years but only after a vote. The voters would write a person’s name on an old shard of pottery. When the votes were sufficient, the person was ostracised by being exiled.

A similar system operated in the ancient city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily to determine a five year exile ,except they wrote the name on olive leaves. As a result it was called petalism or petalismos.

 

Other unusual voting items are the white and black balls in ballots, and the fava beans the Medicis used to vote in Florence, Italy during the 1400s. While in ancient Sparta the candidate with the loudest shouting supporters won the vote.

 

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@wordfoolery)

The Origin of Anecdotes

Hello,

Today’s word is anecdote with thanks to Everyday Etymology who mentioned it recently and sparked my interest.

Typesetter’s Case

Anecdote is used in recent times to identify a, usually brief, amusing story but this was not always the case. It entered English in the 1670s and originally described secrets and unpublished stories which is quite different from the little tales told by stars and authors promoting their latest movie or book on the sofa with a chat show host.

Anecdote either comes direct from the French word anecdote or from Greek roots (with a pit-stop in Latin). The Greek word anekdota means “unpublished things” and comes from an- (not) and ekdotos (published). Ekdotos itself means to “give out”. The whole concept amounts of anecdotes being something you do not give out or make public. An example of this was the “Anecdota”, the unpublished memoirs of the Roman emperor Justinian which were apparently packed with juicy court gossip, and this added to the original English anecdote’s meaning as being a secret story.

Human nature being fond of gossip and the inside story no doubt led to the erosion of the secrecy over time and now anecdotes are tidbits of news shared amongst friends, and on the chat show couch.

Where does this leave “anecdotal evidence“? By the original definition this is evidence which is not published and that’s where anecdote retains some of its original meaning as such evidence usually isn’t formally published but rather is gathered by oral stories. Good to see some secrecy has survived.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling with anecdotes,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

Xenial Greeks Bearing Gifts

Hello,

Today’s word is xenial which I came across in “The Slippery Slope” (Series of Unfortunate Events Book 10) by Lemony Snicket. The author delights in unusual words and I’m reading the entire series at the moment so I can “talk books” (and words) with my daughter who loves them. They’re quick reads for an adult so it’s helping my Goodreads 2019 book reading challenge too.

Xenial is one of the words where the X is said like a Z, by the way. You can get a pronunciation audio file here or just go with zee-knee-ull.

Snicket’s character implies that xenial is another way to say somebody is friendly or helpful and he’s on the right track. Xenial describes friendly relations and hospitality especially by the host for their guest and in particular when those two people are from different city-states or countries. It has its origins in ancient Greece, xenos was the Greek word for guest. For example, Walder Frey was far from xenial when he hosted the Red Wedding in “Game of Thrones”.

xenial gift wrapping

Xenial entered English in the 1800s as an adjective for hospitality but clearly the ancient Greeks were a friendly bunch way before that date. Although we should also probably recall the ancient advice to beware of Greeks bearing gifts, even if they appear xenial at first glance.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and xenial wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)

A Myriad of Greeks

Hello,

This week’s word is myriad because it’s one of my favourites and I wanted to delve into its history.

A myriad of beads

Myriad (pronunciation here) is one the Greeks gave us. It is used in modern English as a noun for a countless number of things or people, or as an adjective to describe something as being great, or countless, in number.

For the Greeks, however, myriad had a specific number associated with it – ten thousand. In ancient Greek the word murioi meant ten thousand and some scholars believe it was the largest number used in the language so hence also worked as a term for something limitless, as in many languages which initially have words for one, more/two, and many as these are the terms most needed in daily life (unless you’re a mathematician or scientist, of course).

Myrias (the Greek genitive form of murioi) edged into Late Latin with the same spelling and the meaning of ten thousand. From there myrias hopped int Middle French as myriade. In the 1550s myriade entered English as myriad and we’ve had it ever since.

Somewhere between Latin and English the precise 10,000 sense was lost and now is hardly used. So if somebody tells you this week that they’ve a myriad of certain items, they probably haven’t counted them. Much to the annoyance of the Ancient Greeks.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,

Grace (@Wordfoolery)