Thin words and beds for one

Just before Christmas I was delighted to find in one of Liverpool’s very few secondhand bookshops the one-volume ‘schools’ edition of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, the standard lexicon for ancient Greek. I’ve been enjoying myself randomly perusing its pages and coming across all kinds of intriguing words. It’s fascinating to see the range of compounds Greek can create using the same prefix, something that English doesn’t really do. For instance, the prefix ‘arti-‘ meaning ‘just now’ can be used to create anything from the dramatic ‘artithanes’ (just dead) to the rather sweet ‘artigeneios’ (with the beard just growing) to the threatening ‘artichanes’ (just yawning/opening).

It’s also fascinating to see the ways in which an alien language uses metaphor. From the basic adjective ‘leptos’ meaning ‘peeled, cleaned of the husks, hence thin, fine, slender, delicate’, Greek makes the metaphorical jump to ‘subtle, refined, ingenious’ and further to ‘over-subtle, quibbling’; ‘lepto-logeo’, literally ‘thin speaking’, hence takes on the meaning of subtle speaking, ‘quibbling’ or the wonderfully Victorian-sounding ‘logic-chopping’ (another delight of this lexicon is the archaic English employed in the definitions – this abridged edition dates from 1871). And there’s real black humour in the metaphorical meaning taken on by the compound ‘monoklinon’, literally ‘a bed for one only’: that is, a coffin.

(As a proud left-hander I was disappointed to see, however, that the ancient Greeks were not exempt from the seemingly universal tendency of languages to extrapolate from the literal meaning of ‘left-handed’ into a whole range of insults: hence, ‘skaiotes’, ‘lefthandedness, awkwardness, clumsiness, stupidity’; ‘skaiourgeo’, ‘to be left-handed in work, to behave rudely or indecorously’. Ah well.)

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