Adjectives, Classical

Teaching Classical Civilizations again this semester has inspired me to compose one of my Lists – in this case, English adjectives that derive from classical places, people, mythology, or other phenomena. Of course, any noun can be made into an adjective, with “of or relating to [noun]” as a definition, but I was getting at something a little different: adjectives that have entered into English referring to a specific quality, like “Orwellian” or “Kafkaesque,” to pick two modern examples.

I would wager that there is a Wikipedia page listing these and all the other ones that I have missed. But I have deliberately avoided looking for one – what’s the fun in that?!

If you can think of any more I’d be pleased to know them!

Persons

draconian – from Draco, Athenian ruler in the seventh century BC, whose laws were especially harsh.

Pyrrhic – from Pyrrhus of Epirus, opponent of the Roman Republic during the Pyrrhic War of 280-275 BC. He scored two victories against Rome, but they were so damaging to his own forces that he is alleged to have said “one more victory like that and I’m finished.” Thus a “Pyrrhic victory” is a victory so costly that you might as well not have had it.

thespian – from Thespis of Icaria, a famous actor.

Petronian – from Petronius (d. AD 66), author of the Satyricon. Often used to describe a gaudy, ostentatious nouveau-riche style, after the wealthy ex-slave Trimalchio, a character in the Satyricon (I guess “Petronian” is easier to say than “Trimalchian”).

pharisaic – more biblical than classical, but the Pharisees were certainly active in the Roman Empire. According to the New Testament, the Pharisees, a sect of Judaism characterized by strict adherence to the Torah and to the oral tradition that surrounded it, were self-righteous and hypocritical, which is somewhat unfair to them. But they’re no longer around to take offense, so I guess we can use this word in good conscience (unlike, say, “jesuitical”).

Philistine – “a person hostile or indifferent to the arts,” although apparently this sense dates from the early nineteenth century, when in the midst of a town-gown conflict at the University of Jena, a sermon was preached on Judges 16, which includes the line “The Philistines are upon you.” Thereafter the uncultured townies were tarred with the epithet “Philistine.”

Sapphic – From Sappho, the most famous Archaic-age lyric poet of all, a woman who expressed love for other women. So “Sapphic” is another way of saying “Lesbian” (q.v.).

Places

Lesbian – the metaphoric use of this word is so common in English that people forget that it’s actually a demonym, referring to an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. But since Sappho lived there, “Lesbian” has become synonymous with “female homosexual.”

sybaritic – Sybaris, a Greek colony on the instep of Italy, was so wealthy and its inhabitants so self-indulgent that “sybaritic” became a byword for hedonistic.

Corinthian – from Paul Fussell, BAD (1991), 20:

For years Chrysler has been unloading its troubling surplus inventories by insisting that its leather upholstery is not just any old leather, of the sort you might make a volleyball or lederhosen out of, but “Corinthian Leather.” The company finally confessed in the Wall Street Journal that the leather comes not from Corinth but from Newark. The name was chosen because a reference book suggested that Corinthian connotes rich desirability, appealing to people who are, if “dissolute,” at least lovers of “luxury, as the people of Corinth were said to be” – which is why, by the way, Saint Paul selected them to receive one of his loudest moral blasts. He told them, “it is reported commonly that there is fornication among you….” Pressed, the Chrysler Corporation would have to admit that Corinthian Leather is just words and never saw Corinth at all.

But according to the dictionary widget for my computer, “Corinthian” means “involving or displaying the highest standards of sportsmanship.” Wiktionary claims “elaborate or ornate” (as in the Corinthian architectural order – see below).

Chrysler should have called it “sybaritic leather.”

spartan – the citizens of the Greek polis of Sparta were famously tough and eschewed luxury, thus the modern meaning of this word.

laconic – the area around Sparta was called Laconia, and because the Spartans valued using as few words as possible, “laconic” has come to mean a personal style that is extremely economical in speech.

Olympian – the gods lived atop Mount Olympus, as Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. “Olympian detachment” thus indicates some combination of superiority, detachment, aloofness, or disinterest.

roman – denotes a number of things, including the alphabet and by extension non-italic typefaces.

alexandrian – from the schools of literature and philosophy of ancient Alexandria, which were apparently “derivative or imitative rather than creative; fond of recondite learning.”

byzantine – overly complex, opaque, and/or treacherous, as the court of the Eastern Roman Empire allegedly was.

Philosophy

The three main schools of popular philosophy in the Hellenistic era were those of the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans, which have given us adjectives cynical, stoic, and epicurean, which are not quite accurate representations of the spirit of these philosophies.

Platonic (love), Socratic (method), Aristotelian (logic), Hippocratic (oath), Pythagorean (theorem), and Ptolemaic (universe) are similarly reductive.

Mythology

Sisyphean – Sisyphus was punished in Hades by being forced to roll a stone up a hill; when he got it to the top it slipped out of his hands and rolled back down, and he had to start again. Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus found in this myth a metaphor for the human condition. In everyday English it refers to a never ending task, like grading or picking up the trash on our road.

tantalizing – from Tantalus, who suffered an inventive punishment: tortured with hunger and thirst, he still could not take a drink of water of the river he was standing in (it would instantly lower itself if he bent down), or help himself to the fruit of a branch hanging above him (which the wind would blow out of his grasp).

promethean – “rebelliously creative and innovative,” like the demigod Prometheus who stole fire and bequeathed it to humanity.

herculean – from Hercules, who had to perform twelve seemingly impossible tasks as punishment for killing his wife and children in a fit of madness. “Herculean” is usually paired with “effort.”

oedipal – Oedipus killed his father and married his mother – quite unwittingly, which is why Freud’s use of this myth to describe a stage of childhood development is somewhat inapt. From this use, though, “oedipal” has come to indicate a rebellious attitude against one’s father or forebears, for deep-seated psychological reasons.

terpsichorean – Terpsichore was the muse of dance, and thus “terpsichorean” is an adjective referring to dance.

Apollonian/Dionysian- if Apollo represents order and rationality, Dionysus represents disorder and irrationality. I think that the Greeks realized that you needed both to be fully human. “Bacchic,” from the god Bacchus (the Roman equivalent of Dionysus), is a synonym of Dionysian, especially with regard to the consumption of wine.

Adjectives from other gods:
mercurial – from the Roman god Mercury, referring to a person “subject to sudden or unpredictable changes of mood or mind.”
venereal – from Venus, which becomes Veneris in the genitive. Venus is the Roman goddess of love, so “venereal” relates “to sexual desire or sexual intercourse,” and especially to a disease you can contract from this activity.
martial – from Mars, the god of war.
jovial – from Jove, a variant of Jupiter, the chief Roman god. “Jovial” means cheerful and friendly, but not because this was an attribute of Jupiter. It is an attribute of those born under the sign of the planet named after Jupiter.
saturnine – from the Roman god Saturn, father of Jupiter. Again, Saturn was not himself slow and gloomy, moody and mysterious, but people born under his planet were.

Finally, there are the three orders of Greek architecture: Corinthian (already mentioned), Doric, and Ionic. And there are a number of musical modes that take place-names, among them Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Aeolian, and Locrian.

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