Damocles, Gordium, & Sisyphus

Sometimes we hear or read a phrase that sounds like it has an interesting story behind it  – I started exploring a few such phrases that have their origins in Greek mythology.

Richard Westall, The Sword of Damocles 1812

The Sword of Damocles – this means that while a rich and powerful person enjoys all the benefits and riches that come with being in that position, they also have to deal with the threats that come along  with it and live in fear because of those threats. The term originates from a story by Cicero  – Dionysius was the tyrant of  Syracuse and had a courtier named Damocles whose job was to constantly flatter Dionysius. One day Damocles made a comment along the lines of how much he envied Dionysius his rich and powerful position. So Dionysius gave him his throne to experience the riches and the power, but at the same time suspended a sword with a horsehair over Damocles’ head. Damocles was unable to enjoy any of the luxuries because he was terrified of that sword over his head, and begged Dionysius to let him become a courtier again.

Giovanni Paolo Panini, Alexander Cutting the Gordian Knot 1718-19

Cutting the Gordian Knot – this means to solve a very complex or involved problem with a bold and swift action. The story behind it is that in 333 BCE Alexander the Great was marching through Anatolia and reached Gordium where he was shown an ancient chariot with a knot tied to its yoke. Anyone who could untie the knot would become ruler of Asia. Alexander – the great warrior – swiftly sliced through the knot with his sword – thereby giving rise to the phrase “cutting the Gordian Knot.”  

Titian, Sisyphus, 1548-49

Sisyphean Task – this is a pointless and unrewarding task that never ends. The origin is the Greek mythology of King Sisyphus of Ephyra who was always offending the Gods with his clever tricks and by cheating death with these tricks. He was punished by Pluto and sent to the underworld where he was forced to push a huge boulder up a hill. Not only was this a difficult task, it was also endless because as soon as the boulder reached the top of the hill it would roll off to the other side and Sisyphus would have to start the task all over again – and ever since then a pointless, endless task is known as a Sisyphean task.

Bread and Circus

The phrase beautifully describes how leaders in ancient Rome placated the masses with free food and entertainment – with these two things in plentiful, politicians managed to keep an overpopulated, hungry, and often angry citizenry pacified and unquestioning.

Bread and Circus was not provided for the benefit of the citizens or their overall well-being – rather it was a pragmatic solution to keep politicians in power. A well fed, well entertained population is unlikely to become a revolutionary force of any kind!!

2nd Century Roman poet and satirist Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis  (known as Juvenal in English) wrote this phrase in Satira X:

Nam qui dabat olim 
Imperium, fasces, legions, omnia, nunc se
Continet, atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
Panem et circenses
      For that sovereign people that once gave away
Military command, consulships, legions, and every thing,
  Now bridles its desires, and limits its anxious longings to two things only
bread and circuses

Here are some other gems that this little-known Roman satire genius wrote :

Orandum es tut sit mens sana incopore sano
Rather than for wealth, power or children, men should pray for a sound mind in a sound body 

Rara avis in terries nigroque simillima cycno 
A truly good person is a rare bird (like a black swan)
Quis custodiet Ipsos custode
Who will guard the guards?
Ques Custodiet Ipsos custodes?… found in Hongkong

Interesting how sometimes things stay relevant for centuries.

Blue-Backed Speller

Before he wrote the dictionary, Webster wrote the book largely responsible for American pronunciation and spelling – the bestselling Blue-Backed Speller.

Noah Webster

Noah Webster was born in Connecticut in 1758 and came of age during the American Revolution. He went to Yale from 1774 to 1778, and became a teacher. It was then that he realized that American education system was too dependent on England and English books, and needed to be updated. He wanted to free American English from the pedantry of English forms and traditions, and in 1783 he wrote A Grammatical Institute of the English Language which became known as the “Blue-Backed Speller” – because of its blue binding.

Towards the end of the 18th and the early part of the 19th century the Blue-Backed Speller was sold in general stores for 14 cents a copy. Over the next 100 years it sold 60 million copies – more than any other book in the American history with the exception of the bible, and became one of the most influential books in the history of the English Language.

An 18th Century school in Winchester, MA

The words and sentences in the book were repeated over and over in classrooms across the fledgling nation – and this repetition of the words over time changed the way Americans sounded out and pronounced the words. With this book Webster made sure Americans spoke words in a way that removed the sounds of the clipped vowels of the English aristocracy whose influence he wanted to remove from everything American. It was all part of a larger cultural transformation that freed America from an English mindset.  

Edward Lamson Henry, A Country School, 1840

It was also from this book that America learnt how to spell in a standardized way across the country. Webster tried to remove all unnecessary letters and illogical spellings from American English – hence the dropping of the letter U from American honor, color etc. He also removed all unnecessary double letters – hence traveler and not traveller, wagon and not the English waggon. He simplified spelling – changing RE to ER as in theater and center, and replaced the C with an S as in defense, gaol became jail, plough became plow, and axe became ax.    

With this book, America also managed to keep English pure and unchanged  – even after 200 years Americans used words that had since dropped from the English language  – the best example is the word fall which England used in the 16th and 17th century but later dropped for the word autumn (which has a French origin). Americans continue to use Chaucer’s “I gesse” unknowingly each time they say “I guess.”

Webster took the American Revolution into the cultural world and the realm of language and literature. With this book he not only shaped the American identity, but managed to unify a linguistically and ethnically diverse nation. At the same time with the Blue-Backed Speller, America, particularly its East Coast, claimed the future of English and became its fiercest guardian.

(Source: YouTube – The History of the English Language, Images Courtesy – noahwebster.org).

Dutch Auction

My classes are online so like all students I’m home all day and listen to tidbits of what’s being said on TV.  Last week I heard the word “Dutch Auction” on CNBC, and I was intrigued by the inclusion of the word Dutch – and researching this took me down quite an interesting path of discovery. Consider the number of additional words that have the “Dutch” qualification: Dutch treat, Double Dutch, to go Dutch, Flying Dutchman are some of the more common ones.

A Dutch Auction, unlike a regular auction, is one in which the auctioneer starts the auction at a high price, and the prices come down instead of going.  This was the kind of auction first used in the tulip markets in the Netherlands – hence Dutch Auction

In a disorganized, fresh flower market, where time was of the essence, the auctioneers wanted the trading to be quick. They would start the auction at an artificially high price, which they would bring down in increments until they got their first bid – at which time the auction would end – and the flowers would be sold at that bid price. This form of auction is more beneficial to sellers (than buyers) because they could get higher prices than in a regular auction.

Dutch Auctions are most often used nowadays by the US Government when selling Treasury Bills and Notes – that’s probably what they were discussing on CNBC when I heard the term !!

What about the other words?  Many of these have an equally interesting origin. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch and the English were the two great seafaring empires -competing with each other for control over maritime routes and colonies – waging as many as three wars over 20 years. One can imagine that the English sailors would have found numerous ways to insult their Dutch counterparts by qualifying all cowardly, low class actions as Dutch. And this was exactly how a number of these words entered the English dictionary.

Going Dutch, which now means to split a bill at a restaurant, would have started as a reference to Dutch frugality or stinginess.  Similarly, Dutch Party is when everyone brings a dish to the host’s house, and a Dutch treat is even worse – when you get invited out to a restaurant for a treat and a bill is sprung upon you at the last minute.

Double Dutch is another interesting term for a jump rope game which has origins in New York which had a lot of Dutch immigrants. It also means nonsense or something that makes no sense to the listener, as in “it’s all double Dutch to me” – because the English generally found the Dutch language incomprehensible. 

Sometimes Dutch and Deutsch are confused – which is why Pennsylvania Dutch are called that instead of Pennsylvania Deutsch.

Serendipity – From Persian Poets to the Earl

From 420 – 438 CE, there ruled a Sasanian king by the name of Bahram Gor (406 – 438 CE) in Persia. He was a benevolent ruler whose reign was mostly peaceful. He is however mostly remembered for being the favorite protagonist of Persian poets.

Emperor Bahram Gor – a favorite of poets

The first poet to write about Bahram was Ferdowsi (940 – 1020), who made him the central figure in Ferdowsi’s epic masterpiece Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written between 977 and 101 CE.

Then in 1197, Bahram was the main protagonist in Nizami Ganjavi’s (1141 – 1209) romantic poem Haft Paykar (Seven Beauties), which was based on the Shahnameh. This was followed in 1302 by the poem Hasht-Bihisht (Eight Paradises) which was written by Amir Khosrow (1253 – 1325), and was based on Haft Paykar. Hasht-Bihisht is also framed around folktales and legends of Bahram Gor. However, in this poem Khosrow added the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

The Italian Translation

An Armenian, known as M. Christoforo Armeno, who was born in Tabriz, Iran in the 16th Century, and was fluent in both Persian and Italian translated the story of the Three Princes of Serendip from Khusrow’s Hasht-Bihisht into Italian. He told the story verbally to a Venetian printer named Tramezzino  who published the story in a small volume of Oriental Tales under the name of Peregrinnagio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo in 1557.

With this translation, the legends and folklore associated with Bahram Gor finally entered Europe, gained a great deal of popularity, and were translated into German and French. Chevalier de Mailly’s French translation was further translated into English in 1722, and published under the title, The Travels and Adventures of Three Princes of Serendip.

Henry Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford

It was this translation that Henry Walpole (1717–97), son of British Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the 4th Earl of Orford read as a child and remembered long after as an adult when he coined the word “serendipity’ in a letter he wrote to his friend Horace Mann on January 28, 1754.

German English

Earlier this week I heard the word Schadenfreude and it really intrigued me – that this very non-English sounding word was being used in English. It is a German word that means to take pleasure in someone else’s pain – for which we have no exact one-word translation in English.  That got me thinking of other German words that we use regularly that were obviously ideally suited to describe something better than English could and so were adopted into the English language.

For the love of driving.

Fahrvergnugen – the love of simply driving – this is another German word that has no exact English translation. This word was used in German car ads and so became quite well known.

Wanderlust – intense desire to travel – this German word is so commonly used in English that I didn’t realize it was not an English word.

Doppelganger – a double who looks exactly like another person – this is another which is used regularly because there is no one word to capture its meaning in English. I’ve noticed the usage of this word seems to have gone up a lot and I see it quite a lot in Instagram – maybe people find their doppelgangers a lot more because of social media.

President Obama and his doppelganger

Zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – another German word that describes the spirit of the times better than any English word could.

Kindergarten – children’s garden – interestingly another German word.

Kitschy – something that’s tacky – this is another German / Yiddish word that describes something tacky particularly with reference to art or decorations.

Hinterland – backwoods – another lovely German word that does the job better than English could.

Huck Finn – a Bildungsroman

Bildungsroman – a literary term most high schoolers who have read “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” know only too well – and now we know the word is German.

A delicious deli

Deli short for Delikatessen – another common work which comes from Germany.

Interesting how English adopts words and adapts itself – maybe that’s why it’s the most widely spoken language in the world!!