Linguistic curiosities

Weird or wonderful snippets about the Greek or Latin languages

Latin joy

"Learning Latin is like getting x-ray specs. It shows the infrastructure of so many things". I thoroughly recommend Annalisa Barbieri's article on the joys of Latin ("Amo, amas, I love a lass") in Wednesday's Guardian [Guardian, June 3 2004]. A search for "amo amas" on the Guardian website will reveal other gems as well!

Top Names in 2001

There's little change from my first report in 1997 (see below). For girls the Greek Mia is rising fast (up 20 places in 2001) - an ambiguous choice: is she "one" of many more to follow, or a precious planned only "one"? Probably reflects the popuarity of Kate Winslet - who called her baby Mia. Watch out next year for a rush of Hermiones, from Harry Potter. The early 20th century classical Lily is back in favour (number 36 - up 11 places). Boys stay much as they were: although down the charts we have a Latin Leo (at 101 - chosen by Prime Ministerial Blairs), and Maximus (from Russell Crowe's role in Gladiator) is beginning to appear from nowhere.
Source: births in UK 2001.

The Euro

It is appropriate that the symbol for the new Euopean currency, the euro [€] is actually the Greek letter epsilon (naked e) - with an extra bar to symbolise its (hoped for) stability. The Greeks invented Europe. Europe originally referred just to central Greece (used first in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo) but soon grew to be a word for Greece as a whole, and by the beginning of the 5th century BC, not just Greece, but the lands that were joined to it to the north and west. It was, from the first, a balancing concept to that of Asia, with the frontier at the river Don (Tanais). Asia was inhabited by barbaroi (ie non-greek speakers: the derivation of the word was believed to be the inability of "barbarians" to communicate adequately, using some infantile atttempt at language that sounded to them like "bar bar"). Calling Europeans "barbaroi" was always an intended insult (as when used by Greek orators of the 4th century BC about Macedonians) - whereas for the inhabitants of Asia it was merely descriptive (but actually very insulting indeed!). But Greeks tended to have a binary view of the world - a handy division between Europe and Asia (as seen in art on, for example, the Parthenon decorations) fitted in well with their other "natural" oppositions: master/slave; man/woman; man/child; man/animal; man/god; immortal/mortal. No connection with Europa, the girl seduced by a sexy bull, who turned out to be Zeus.

Greeks lose their drachma after at least two and a half millennia. Originally it was not the name of a coin at all - it's the Greek word for a "handful" - referring to a handful of iron spits (obeloi, obols). Iron spits - valuable because useful - remained the medium of exchange in Sparta even in the 5th century. For the Attic "owl" (silver coin from Athens) see this page.

Latin goes nuts

A new EU regulation (the cosmetic products safety directive 1999) makes it compusory to describe ingredients on the labels of toiletries and cosmetics in LATIN, rather than local European languages. Peanut oil is arachis hyopogaea, water is aqua and egg is ovum. The idea is to help travellers in Europe avoid succumbing to allergic reaction. But the Anaphylaxis campaign is alarmed. It thinks sufferers will be more vulnerable, as they may not understand Latin.

The Spectator (22 May 1999) comments:

"What an attitude! We feel this is an excellent opportunity for people to learn a new language. Over the years, Latin has been eroded from our lives, first from school curriculums, then from the Roman Catholic Mass. Yet it remains a useful language and the root of many tongues, as does ancient Greek. Where does the Anaphylaxis Campaign think the word 'anaphylaxis' comes from, anyway? Cockney, perhaps? We suggest they advise their members to stop worrying and buy a Latin-English dictionary."[Laetitia Casta]

Pure Happiness?

Did you know that the "most beautiful woman in the world" has a name which is perfect Latin, and means "pure happiness"? She is Laetitia Casta, and as far as I can ascertain, she was christened Laetitia Casta. She's a French model, born in Corsica on May 11th 1978 (which is also my birthday - although that was a few years before 1978 unfortunately). If you want to check out her claims to be the Helen of our times, just try a google search!

Top Names in 1998

There's little change from last year (see below). The boys remain Biblical, Irish and Showbiz, while the girls remain relatively Classical. Laura leaves the top 20 (down to 24), but new entries lower down include Phoebe (43) (due to Friends rather than any respect for the Goddess of the Moon - Diana doesn't make the top 50), Amelia (48)(=Carelessness - good name for an unplanned baby?) and Lydia (50) (only for slaves in the ancient world). But what happened to Zoe and Victoria? (Down 13 and 7 places respectively: have Zoe Ball's antics on Radio 1 been enough to put parents off her name? Has Posh Spice's liaison with Beckham tarnished her name?)
Source: births in UK 1998.

Galaxy, Galatea etc

For an amusing article linking the realisation in a Greek cafe that gala was the Greek for milk with the origins of the cosmos, see Presscuttings


D'YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN? Oasis in the 20th centurySoggy green stuff that you find at the bottom of a vase of flowers; an online magazine for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth"; a tacky swimming pool; a Barber Shop and Beaty (sic) Salon; cheesy night clubs; hotels here there and everywhere - and, inevitably, a troop of loud-mouthed Mancunians who are more popular than God (according to Big G Noël). There are 136910 references to Oasis listed by Alta Vista [1998] - where did it all start?

   The first reference is in Herodotus (3.26) - read the text in Perseus. The mad Persian king, Cambyses, had ordered a force of 50,000 to march from Thebes in Egypt into the desert to burn the Oracle of Zeus at Ammon. "They reached the town of Oasis, which belongs to Samians [Greek islanders], and is seven days' journey across the sand from Thebes. The place is known in Greek as the Islands of the Blessed [ie Heaven]. The army got as far as this, but there is no certain knowledge of what became of it. It never returned to Egypt. The Ammonians say that when the army was half-way between Oasis and themselves, a violent wind blew the sand over them as they were having lunch, and they disappeared for ever."

   The word oasis is not actually Greek - it comes from the Coptic language. It's difficult to see where Oasis got its cheerful popular meaning from - during the Roman Empire the Oasis was a favourite wilderness to banish criminals to - a place far away and unpleasant from which they'd be unlikely to return. A sort of Devil's Island.

   No doubt there are many who'd like to see Noël and Liam etc disappear for ever to a place from which they'd be unlikely to return - but alas they insist they must "be here now."

Lexicon Recentis Latinitatis (Dictionary of Modern Latin)

Father Carlo Egger would have been a man dear to Varro's heart. He's spent the last eight years compiling his dictionary of Latin equivalents for all those objects and ideas so unfortunately lacking in the dreary old world of the 1st century BC. How did Cicero ever manage without:

It's a pity that so many seem to be clumsy circumlocutions rather than genuine new coinages - they really do smack of the pedantry of a Varro.

Top 20 Names in 1997

There are only a few boys' names in the top 20 which have any Classical connection among the Ryans (9), Liams (13) and Calums (15). Top names were the Biblical Jack(?), James, Thomas, Daniel, Joshua, Matthew, Samuel and Joseph. Who said we were a pagan country?

But half the girls' names are Classical. Why is the first Biblical girl Rebecca at 7?

Achilles' Heel Kicked Out

A world conference conference of Anatomists in Sao Paulo, Brazil has agreed on a revised list of standard anatomical terms in Latin and English, which will enable doctors in all countries to know which bit hurts. There are casualties, though. Out go Fallopian tubes, Adam's apple - and the Achilles tendon, which will in future be known as tendo calcaneus.Behind the changes is Dr Di Dio, whose has gained linguistic immortality by being the first to name parts of the body that were previously anonymous - the gap between the breasts, for example, is now officially the "inter-mammary sulcus" (who said cleavage?). [Guardian 29 August 1997]


Latin is included along with dozens of other languages in a universal web travellers' phrasebook. They helpfully point out that although Latin is "dead", it is spoken in the Vatican City. A marvellous, if bizarre idea - slightly spoiled by mis-spellings. But if you want to be able to translate Latin phrases instantly into Afrikaans or Hungarian, this is for you! Site is now hideously commercialised (March 2011) - but if you scroll down and choose "Latina, Latin" in "the language you speak" it still works inits inimitable way.

Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar

A favourite Latin grammar, dating from the turn of the century. The English of this grammar is formal and slightly antiquated ("I be dancing"), but is an excellent resource for students of traditional Latin.

Latin Teach Web Page

Sharon Kazmierski's excellent and enthusiastic base for supporting Latin Teachers worldwide.