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Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks

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August 23, 2004, 07:58
wordcrafter
Ethnic slurs of the Classical Greeks
The classical Greeks, like any other ethnic group, used ethnic slurs upon their neighbors. This week we'll present some of those slurs that have come into English.

Yes, I can foresee you saying for some of these words, "That wasn't ancient Greek. It was coined by later speakers versed in the classics." Or, "That referred not to the ethnic group, but to the traits of a prominent person or mythological figure from that place. " Or, "That wasn't a slur. It was just descriptive, or the negative meaning came later." To all of which I respond, "Pooh! Let's not let quibbles stand in the way of the tale."

boeotian – a dull, obtuse person. The emphasis seems to be on rude ignorance and illiteracy (think "country bumpkin") rather than stupidity.

Boetia is a farming district in ancient Greece, whose inhabitants the urbane Athenians found thick and stupid, with no understanding of art or literature. Think "country bumpkin". Brewer gives another explanation: "The ancient Boeotians loved agricultural and pastoral pursuits, so the Athenians used to say they were dull and thick as their own atmosphere." But the slur seems unfair, since Hesiod, Pindar, and Plutarch all hailed from Boeotia.
August 23, 2004, 08:28
Eric L. Andersen
This appears to be the historical equivalent of the modern American pejorative "farmer", which I recall from my childhood. According to my son it is still extant among his adolescent peers. I've always been amused by this, as the average farmer today has a broader range of knowledge and abilities than anyone typically using this insult...
August 23, 2004, 10:27
jerry thomas
This really seems to be more about the ubiqitous human practice of stereotyping than anything else.

We notice characteristics of one or a few individuals, then paint all members of that person's family, group, "race," et cetera with the same broad brush.

Stereotypes are not necessarily pejorative.

What comes to mind when we hear "Samaritan" ??
August 23, 2004, 22:22
shufitz
You may know the humorous story which started Mark Twain on his rise to fame, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. (If not, you're in for a treat.) Many years later Twain learned, from Professor Van Dyke of Princeton, that the story was 2000 years old: it had been a fable in ancient Greece, with a Boeotian as the dupe. Twain relates how he learned of this, in his Private History of the "Jumping Frog" Story, in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays (1897).

Here is the ancient version of the story:Edit: Oops! Please see my post below dated Sept. 2.

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August 23, 2004, 23:35
Richard English
Quote "...What comes to mind when we hear "Samaritan" ??..."

These days we think of someone good and kind. Indeed, the Samaritans charity (I assume they exist in the USA) is one that acts as a confidante and help for badly upset people.

But Smaritans in biblical times were reviled as being bad and unhelpful people. The story worked then because of the unexpected happenstance of a representative of the reviled Samaritans putting himself out to help one whose needs had gone untended by other, supposedly "better", people.

Substitute one of today's denigated races or classes (choose your own) and the story would work better than it does in the biblical original.


Richard English
August 24, 2004, 07:11
wordcrafter
sybarite – a person devoted to pleasure and luxury; a voluptuary
[from Subaris (Sybaris), from the notorious luxury of its inhabitants]
August 24, 2004, 07:55
Robert Arvanitis
If recollection serves, the Boeotians(from the polis of Platea) were the only Greeks to join the Athenians at the battle of Marathon. The Athenians never forgot this.

The Greek word for "help" is "boethia." (In Symbol font that would be beta, omicron, eta, theta, epsilon, iota, alpha.)


RJA
August 24, 2004, 23:07
neveu
quote:
But Samaritans in biblical times were reviled as being bad and unhelpful people. The story worked then because of the unexpected happenstance of a representative of the reviled Samaritans putting himself out to help one whose needs had gone untended by other, supposedly "better", people.


My understanding of the context of the Good Samaritan parable was that Samaritans were considered rivals and outsiders by Judeans rather than particularly unhelpful. Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, as opposed to the southern Kingdom of Judea, and they had their own temple that competed with the temple in Jerusalem. There was bad blood between the Judeans and Samaritans for various historical reasons, but Samaritans followed the same religious laws as the Judeans. In the parable, a priest and a Levite pass by the wounded man, ostensibly because they would become defiled had they touched him or even gone near him if he were dead. The Samaritan was bound by the same laws, but was still considered a foreigner; this is important because the parable is about how to properly follow Mosaic law. Another kind of foreigner, say Greek, wouldn't have worked because they were not bound by Mosaic law.
August 25, 2004, 08:41
wordcrafter
abderian – given to laughter; particularly, inclined to foolish or incessant merriment

But is the dictionary definition correct? The word abderian is too rarely used for me to glean its meaning from context. The sources agree that it comes from the Thracian town of Abdera, a town in Thrace, or from its prominent philosopher Democritus. [One says Abdera's "citizens were considered rustic simpletons who would laugh at anything or anyone they didn't understand".]

However, the stories about Abdera and Democritus don't really support a concept of "foolish merriment". In general they show the townsfolk as stupid or as subject fits of nutty emotion, and show Democritus as a worldly-wise man laughing at the follies of mankind, in an attitude of "Lo, what fools these mortals be."

I'll relate these various stories on our board, over the next few days. Here's one:

Richard Strauss based his last work, Des Esels Schatten ('The Donkey's Shadow'), on a 1774 satire set in ancient Abdera, Die Abderiten by Christoph Martin Wieland. The plot is a legal dispute over the question, "Who owns the donkey's shadow?" The renter of a donkey cooled himself in the donkey's shadow, whereupon the donkey's owner demands more money, claiming he leased the donkey, not its shadow. The legal dispute rages; the city and its citizens are sharply split on the controversy – and everyone forgets the donkey, who is neglected and dies of starvation.

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August 25, 2004, 11:28
arnie
Coincidence or what?

Many people will know that CJ's OEDILF has been taken up by the Washington Post and the idea used in their Style Invitational contest. A few weeks back they had a "Special Extra Added Bonus Contest" to come up with a punch line to the "Oldest Joke in the World".
quote:
It concerns a resident of Abdera, a town featured in ancient Greek dopey-people jokes, much as Chelm is used for Yiddish dopey-people jokes, and West Virginia is a proud component of the United States
The results of the contest are here.

Not only that, but some months back I chose the word for use in the Bluffing Game thread!


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
August 25, 2004, 12:36
Kalleh
Interestingly, I was at the library today looking for something else, but while I was there, I looked up "abderian" in the OED. It isn't there (at least in their edition.) I wonder why not?
August 25, 2004, 13:06
jerry thomas
Dictionary.com has abderian.

[[Side note: (A relatively insignificant point, but .. ) Kalleh, why do you place a question mark after "I wonder why not," which is not a question but a declarative statement.]]

We wonder why you do that ? Big Grin
August 25, 2004, 13:21
jheem
Maybe she meant to write I wonder: "why not?"?
August 25, 2004, 13:54
Kalleh
Gosh, now that I see "abderian" is in Webster's, I wonder if, in fact, I missed it!

Kalleh, why do you place a question mark after "I wonder why not," which is not a question but a declarative statement

Jerry, I think I do that because I tend to write as I think. In my mind, my "wonder" was actually a question! You are right, though, it was a declarative sentence and should have had a period.
August 25, 2004, 17:44
wordnerd
Richard: "But Samaritans in biblical times were reviled as being bad and unhelpful people."
nevau: "My understanding of the context of the Good Samaritan parable was that Samaritans were considered rivals and outsiders by Judeans rather than particularly unhelpful."

It is a key point that, regardless of the details, the Judeans had no love for the Samaritans.
Given that background, fit the parable of the Samaritan into the context in which Jesus tells it. In Luke 10:25-37, an expert in the law poses a question to Jesus: The story would lose its point if "a common man" replaced "a Samaritan". It is tale against prejudice, a lesson that even one of the despised Samaritans is to be loved "as thy neighbor".

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August 26, 2004, 02:58
Richard English
This explains the whole story very well.

Incidentally, this is a good example of how the Bible can be used to demonstrate good sense and noble principles and it is my own view that all holy books should be used in this way.

Those who try to say that the Bible (or the Qoran or any other ancient writing) must be considered 100% accurate to the smallest word and must be obeyed in 100% of their exhortations misunderstand the true worth of such books.

They are the repositary of good lessons for the guidance of sensible people - not as straitjackets to bind the mindless.


Richard English
August 26, 2004, 06:44
wordcrafter
solecism – 1. a word blunder: a nonstandard usage or grammatical construction
2. a social blunder: a violation of etiquette; an impropriety
[after Soloi, an Athenian colony in Cilicia where a dialect regarded as substandard was spoken.]
August 27, 2004, 06:26
wordcrafter
laconic – saying much in few words; brief, pithy and brusque, almost to the point of rudeness
Lakonia's chief city was Sparta, and Spartan speech was short and to the point. Examples:
Current usage:
August 27, 2004, 07:52
Robert Arvanitis
Not to be confused with Laocoönic...


RJA
August 28, 2004, 20:05
Kalleh
My logophile friend offers these stories about "solecism" and "laconic."

Let us ourselves resolve not to create such social solecisms. Never go out to dinner without the means to pay for it, in the expectation that somebody else will pick up the bill.

When I was working my way through school as an attendant at McLean Hospital, one of the patients, an alcoholic whose father was a judge, told the story about the guy with one arm from birth injury that was two inches shorter than the other. He used the long arm to reach everything on the table that he wanted, and the short arm to miss the dinner check by two inches.

About laconic:

I still remember example of laconic speech in Latin book I had in eighth grade. When the Persians invaded Greece, in a truce before the battle, the Persian representative, trying to intimidate the Spartans, said: "When our archers shoot, the light of the sun will be blotted out!" The Spartan said: "We will fight in the shade."

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August 29, 2004, 11:56
wordcrafter
sardonic – disdainfully humorous; scornful and mocking
A Tale of Etymology: Most sources still trace sardonic to an ancient Greek belief a plant called sardonion, native to Sardinia, caused the face to screw up and convulse in an expression resembling sardonic laughter. So said the classical Romans. (Virg. Ecl. 7.41; Pausanius)

But this Sardinia theory has been disproved. Sardonic appears in Homer (Odyssey xx. 302 σαρδάνιον), and in Homer's time the Greeks, as I understand it, had not discovered Sardinia. (Another objection, which no source mentions: Sardinia is not particularly isolated. Is it likely a supposed plant would be unknown on the mainland and identified only with the island of Sardinia?)

Some modern sources try to reconcile this, claiming that Homer's sardanion later changed in Greek, by influence of Sardonion "Sardinian" associated with the supposed Sardinian plant. This seems to me merely an attempt to preserve an old theory by explaining away contrary evidence. Perhaps this a-to-o change did occur in some Greek editions rather than later (the web is unclear), but I see no evidence that it was anything more than scrivener error or a pronunciation change over time.

My conclusion: the "Sardinia" theory is nothing but a folk etymology created by the ancient Roman writers. (PS: after concluding this, I found that Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics calls the theory a folk etymology.)

If sardonic is from Homer's σαρδάνιον, where does the latter come from? One theory cites Greek σαίρειν (in our letters, 'sairden'?) "to draw back the lips and bare the teeth", grinning like a dog. That makes particular sense when you note that the ancient Greeks did use a similar dog-term for nasty speech. Their word for "to strip off the flesh, as does a dog" (sarkos flesh), became their noun and verb for sarcastic speech (sarkasmo, sarkazein), leading in turn to our sarcasm.

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August 30, 2004, 08:33
wordcrafter
Our final word of this theme has both positive and negative meanings.

corinthian
positive noun: a fashionable man about town; a bon vivant; esp. a wealthy amateur yachtsman or other sportsman
negative noun: a debauched man devoted to the pursuit of pleasure
adj: as or like such a man, of either sort (also, an ornate type of architectural column)

[miscellaneous senses: corinthian race – one in which the contesting yachts must be manned by amateurs. corinthianism – harlotry. to corinthianize – to live an idle, dissipated life.]The term led to the name of a popular alcoholic drink. Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1824) tells the adventures of Corinthian Tom and his sidekick Jerry Hawthorne. From this, the "Tom and Jerry".

Etymology: The ancient Greeks and Romans portray Corinth as a licentious city,¹ but this may be more slanderous than true, for Corinth was a major commercial rival of Athens, allied militarily with Athens' rival Sparta. Interestingly, though in English 'corinthian' refers to a man, the ancients viewed Corinth as a city of loose women.²


¹Note: Paul's Letter to the Corinthians refers to a different city, founded on the same site long after "Old Corinth" had been destroyed.

²Slightly difference between Greek and Roman views:
. . . .To the Greeks, it seems, almost any woman from Corinth was a loose woman. Dialogue in Aristophanes Lysistrata: "'She's a Corinthian.' 'Yes, isn't she. Very open, in some ways particularly.'" Some say that "Corinth", with a verb ending, was Greek slang for "to fornicate".
. . . .To the Romans, Corinth was a city of 'loose women' in the sense that it had numerous (and very expensive) prostitutes. Plutarch: "Aristophanês speaks of the unheard-of sums (amounting to £200 or more) demanded by the harlots of Corinth." Strabo: "There were no fewer than a thousand harlots in Corinth." Strabo says prostitution was part of the city's religious cult practices, but scholars doubt this, since sacred prostitution was a Middle East custom, not a Greek one.

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August 30, 2004, 09:05
neveu
Let's not forget the most famous use 'Corinthian' as a adjective (at least in 1970's America): the seats of fine Corinthian leather in the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba.
August 30, 2004, 12:44
Robert Arvanitis
...and now we know why Ricardo Montalban was smiling.


RJA
August 30, 2004, 19:48
Kalleh
Regarding "sardonic," there is 'risus sardonicus,' which is a symptom in tetanus. It is a facial expression characterized by raised eyebrows and grinning distortion of the face resulting from spasm of facial muscles.

Be sure to get your tetanus shots!
August 31, 2004, 01:17
Richard English
Quote "...Corinthian leather in the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba..."

You'd have thought that Spanish leather would have been more appropriate considering the model's name.


Richard English
August 31, 2004, 05:34
jheem
You'd have thought that Spanish leather would have been more appropriate considering the model's name.

I always thought that Chrysler meant the Mexican city of Cordoba in the commercial since Ricardo Montalban is a Mexican-born actor.
August 31, 2004, 14:22
neveu
You'd have thought that Spanish leather would have been more appropriate considering the model's name.

Probably the guys making up the name for the car didn't talk to the guys making up the name for the leather until it was too late.
August 31, 2004, 14:46
Robert Arvanitis
It is also not impossible, that the marketing person failed to distinguish Spanish accent from Greek.

An acquaintance once tried to communicate in France, using ranch-hand Spanish. Failing, he asked "Wut's wrong? I wuz speaking 'furrin' at'em..."


RJA
September 02, 2004, 18:25
wordnerd
This article discusses solicism in depth. "Come on, I thought," says the author. "A city known for its bad grammar? Doesn't that sound like an etymological tall tale, a fable told by English teachers to scare students into diagramming sentences?"

But the data bear it out. For example, Aristotle's "On Rhetoric" uses soloikizo to refer to an error of syntax.

The article has further discussion with the Chairman of the Classics Department at the University of Chicago. The Chairman adds that we really don't have direct evidence that the ancient Greeks thought ill of the speech and grammar of Soloi's inhabitants. Rather, this may have been merely a story created or embellished by ancient historians, engaging in amateurish etymology.

If so, it would be rather similar to what was said above about sardonic.
September 02, 2004, 18:59
shufitz
Oops! This follows up on my post of Aug. 23 in this thread.

I'd told how Mark Twain, well after he published The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, learned that the very same story had been a fable in ancient Greece, with a Boeotian as the dupe. I cited Twain's 1897 description of that information.

Well, Twain later discovered that his 1897 information was wrong. In 1903 he reported that a bemused Professor Sidgwick had told him (Twain) that he (Sidgwick), impressed by Twain's frog story, had simply converted it to ancient Greek, apparently as an exercise for students. He never dreamed that anyone would mistake it for an authentic ancient-Greek original.

Such are scholars!

Here is Twain's 1903 account: NOTE. November, 1903. When I became convinced that the "Jumping Frog" was a Greek story two or three thousand years old, I was sincerely happy, for apparently here was a most striking and satisfactory justification of a favorite theory of mine - to wit, that no occurrence is sole and solitary, but is merely a repetition of a thing which has happened before, and perhaps often. Still, when I later had a chance to see Professor Sidgwick's book I was a little staggered, because of two things: the details were a little too faithful to the facts in the Calaveras incident for the comfort of my theory, and I could not help being suspicious of the Greek frog because he was willing to be fed with gravel. One can't beguile the modern frog with that product. By-and-by, in England, after a few years, I learned that there hadn't been any Greek frog in the business, and no Greek story about his adventures. Professor Sidgwick had not claimed that it was a Greek tale; he had merely synopsised the Calaveras tale and transferred the incident to classic Greece; but as he did not state that it was the same old frog, the English papers reproved him for the omission. He told me this in England in 1899 or 1900, and was much troubled about that censure, for his act had been innocent, he believing that the story's origin was so well known as to render formal mention of it unnecessary. I was very sorry for the censure, but it was not I that applied it. I would not have done it. M.T.
September 03, 2004, 04:23
Robert Arvanitis
kalleh mentions "risus sardonicus," -- a facial muscle spasm most often caused tetanus.

I had previously only known the form "rictus sardonicus," which seems to be associated with death.

E.g: "Poisons which induce the Rictus Sardonicus; the death grin, are
both rare and disturbing by their very nature."
(I'll say!)

Latin scholars: Is there a grammatical distinction in Latin, which makes "rictus" the gone-forever form?!


RJA
September 03, 2004, 06:31
jheem
Is there a grammatical distinction in Latin, which makes "rictus" the gone-forever form?!

No, they're both past participles of two different verbs: ringor (rictum) 'to gape, open wide the mouth; to snarl' and rideo (risum) 'to laugh'.
September 28, 2005, 20:39
Kalleh
quote:
[after Soloi, an Athenian colony in Cilicia where a dialect regarded as substandard was spoken.]

I just read a very interesting article by Nathan Bierman that does an excellent job of refuting the idea that "solecism" came from the ancient city of Soloi. Nathan went to a few experts to validate this assertion, though Jonathan Hall, Chair of the Classics Department and Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World at the University of Chicago, seems be the most adamant against this theory. Hall says that the earliest usage of "solecism" is by the 6th Century B.C. poet Anakreon, in which he beseeches Zeus, as Hall translates, "to silence the solecian speech lest you utter barbarisms."

Interestingly, one century after Anakreon, the historian Herodotus uses "soloikizo" to mean "to speak bad Scythian" -- another ancient language, spoken clear across Asia Minor in what is now Iran.

The experts just don't seem to have enough evidence to support this theory, and Hall isn't even certain that there was an official Athenian settlement in Soloi.