Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peculiarities of Vocabulary

Greek & Latin, like all languages, have strange pecularities in their vocabularies, which often lie hidden in the pages of the two great LS’s1, waiting for the student’s eye to stray accidentally and produce a jolt of thought: “Surely, there can’t be a word for that?!

Here are some of the more amusing that I have found, along with some practical notes:


A word that immediately got me laughing when completing an Epic Greek course. In one place2, Achilles starts off with a furious tirade against Agamemnon. Not merely does he say Agamemnon has “eyes like a dog”, but he also calls him a drunkard. But the word used is quite literally: “Heavy with wine”. What a brilliant way to say that someone is drunk!

Practical Note:

When accosted by an acquaintance at a party telling you that you are inebriated, respond : Please do not be crude. I am not drunk. I am merely heavy-with-wine, as the good Homer saith”. Should your accuser be a Classics professor (this happens more often than you think), you may finish with a flourish by adding this line in hexameter:

οἰνοβαρής , ἀλλἔτἐλαφρῶς βαίνω. σιγᾶς
Oinabarês ô all-et-elaphrôs bainô. Sigâs!

I am heavy-with-wine, yet I still walk lightly. Shut up!


One of series of related words, all involving getting drunk, this particular word means : “excessive wine-drinking, inebriation, intoxication”. Unfortunately, as apt as it would be, the modern slang “crap” does not descend from this expression of Bacchus (that deity still worshipped with great devotion by students across the globe) – which appears to have to come to us from a very late Latin word crappa “chaff”3. Regardless, here are some other members of this series:

  • crapularius – “pertaining to inebriation”
  • crapulentus – “very much intoxicated”
  • crapulosus – “inclined to drunkenness”

Practical Note:

A phrase for use at a particularly erudite pub:

da mihi, domine, crapularia. crapula in animo habeo.
Get me a drink, mister. I wish to get plastered”


Sometimes a word tells you a little more about the culture that spawned it than you’d like to know. This is one of them. The definition for kinabraô reads “to smell rankly of he-goat”. I can but only pity the circumstances that made it necessary for the Hellenes to coin an entire verb for such a state.

And as useful as the verb may be, there is also a noun should you require: κινάβρα (kinabra) – “the rank smell of a he-goat”.

Practical Note:

Should a scenario arise in which it necessarily to ask an “aromatic” individual politely to move so as to assist your breathing, use the following:

ἀπόστιχε. κιναβρᾶς.
apostikhe. kinabras.
Scoot. You smell of goat.


A compound of σπέρμα (seed) and λόγος (reasoning, utterance, word), spermologos (itself a shortened version of the full σπερματολόγος) is an evocative word. The original meaning is something like “to pick up meanings like seeds on the floor”, being roughly equivalent to what Afrikaans slang calls “om stompies op te tel”. Eventually it came to mean an “idle babbler”, its most famous use probably being used by some Athenians of the Apostle Paul: τί ν θέλοι σπερμολόγος οτος λέγειν – “What might this babbler want to say?”4. What splendid imagery: words scattered idly like seeds!

Practical Note:

For a colleague who has a habit of interjecting in every conceivable conversation, ready to offer half-considered opinions not necessarily related to the subject at hand, I recommend:

σπερμολόγε, διαλέκτος τοῖς λόγοις οὐκ ἐστίν ἀγρός.
o spermologe, ho dialektos  tois logois uk estin agros.
This conversation, oh babbler, is not a field in which you can sow words like seeds.


While Greek has simpler verbs for bribing and bribetakers (δεκάζω and δωροδέκτης, respectively), there is one word for those who take bribes that is impossible to forget once you’ve heard it. I first encountered the word dorophagos at the tenth UNISA Classics Colloquium which had as its theme “Integrity & Corruption”. During that splendid conference, the concept of bribery came up often, as one might well imagine. The word literally means “one who eats gifts”, evoking images of corrupt officials gorging themselves on ill-gotten gain.

Practical Note:

Should you wish (absit omen) to offer a bribe with flair, why not try:

Απάρχες, δωροφάγειν ἄν θέλοις ;
aparkhes, dôrophagein an thelois ?
Care to munch on a gift, officer?

1 – The two canonical dictionaries of Latin and Greek : Lewis & Short, and Liddell & Scott, respectively. Any dictionary references in this post, unless otherwise noted, come from these.
2 Ιliad, Bk 1, 225
3 – Or so report some online dictionaries, among which the Oxford is numbered. A deeper study is likely to be more precise, but given the word I’d not like to get deeper in it, thank you.
4 – Acts 17:18. The translation is my own. The KJV and NRSV translate σπερμολόγος as “babbler”, while the NASB adds the adjective “idle”.

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