Color in Homer

An interesting article in Aeon magazine:

The sea was never blue

The Greek colour experience was made of movement and shimmer. Can we ever glimpse what they saw when gazing out to sea?

Homer used two adjectives to describe aspects of the colour blue: kuaneos, to denote a dark shade of blue merging into black; and glaukos, to describe a sort of ‘blue-grey’, notably used in Athena’s epithet glaukopis, her ‘grey-gleaming eyes’. He describes the sky as big, starry, or of iron or bronze (because of its solid fixity). The tints of a rough sea range from ‘whitish’ (polios) and ‘blue-grey’ (glaukos) to deep blue and almost black (kuaneosmelas). The sea in its calm expanse is said to be ‘pansy-like’ (ioeides), ‘wine-like’ (oinops), or purple (porphureos). But whether sea or sky, it is never just ‘blue’. In fact, within the entirety of ancient Greek literature you cannot find a single pure blue sea or sky.

Yellow, too, seems strangely absent from the Greek lexicon. The simple word xanthos covers the most various shades of yellow, from the shining blond hair of the gods, to amber, to the reddish blaze of fire. Chloros, since it’s related to chloe (grass), suggests the colour green but can also itself convey a vivid yellow, like honey.

The ancient Greek experience of colour does not seem to match our own. In a well-known aphorism, Friedrich Nietzsche captures the strangeness of the Greek colour vocabulary:

“How differently the Greeks must have viewed their natural world, since their eyes were blind to blue and green, and they would see instead of the former a deeper brown, and yellow instead of the latter (and for instance they also would use the same word for the colour of dark hair, that of the corn-flower, and that of the southern sea; and again, they would employ exactly the same word for the colour of the greenest plants and of the human skin, of honey and of the yellow resins: so that their greatest painters reproduced the world they lived in only in black, white, red, and yellow).”

How is this possible? Did the Greeks really see the colours of the world differently from the way we do?

Read more at the link. I was curious to discover that William Ewart Gladstone, four times Prime Minister of the UK in the nineteenth century, also wrote a book entitled Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age (1858), in which he advanced the novel theory that “the visual organ of the ancients was still in its infancy, hence their strong sensitivity to light rather than hue, and the related inability to clearly distinguish one hue from another.”

Speaking of “wine-like,” here is Ian Johnston’s commentary on that most Homeric of epithets:

All similes are inherently ironic. For while they insist upon the similarities between two apparently different things, they also implicitly call attention to those differences. The effect of a simile depends upon an appropriate balance between these two contrasting tendencies. If the differences are too extreme (“heterogeneous ideas yoked by violence together,” as Dr Johnson says of the Metaphysical poets) the comparison is too strained to work. If, on the other hand, the comparison is too familiar and obvious, the simile has become inert and trite, what we call a cliché. A successful simile retains enough difference to be fresh and enough similarity to be apt and, in the process, pulls the reader in different directions.

Consider, for example, Homer’s most famous comparison, the “wine dark sea.”  At once the metaphor suggests the rich attractiveness of the ocean, the fascination with the hidden emotional powers of nature. For the sea, like wine, benefits a man, tempts him, intoxicates him, and can overpower and kill him. On the other hand, the sea in many ways is not like wine at all. Wine is produced by human skill and has become an essential part of civilized life in homes and temples. It is an important part of those occasions where human beings celebrate among themselves. The sea, by contrast, follows its own whims and cannot be made a permanent and predictable part of anyone’s peaceful social existence. Its eternally bitter vintage arises from and works by some mysterious, ambiguous power uncontrolled by human beings. The complex paradox in this apparently simple metaphor simultaneously insists upon the similarity and the difference.

By calling attention to nature in this way, Homer’s style creates and sustains throughout the poem a constant ironic tension.

Hocus Pocus

I told my students the other day that they should not say “hocus-pocus,” because it’s anti-Catholic, a mockery of “hoc est corpus meum,” the words a Catholic priest uses to transubstantiate the bread into the actual flesh of Jesus. (Actually, I see now that this is only one of several possible explanations of this phrase.) They then asked what words were used to transubstantiate the wine. After explaining just why blood is optional when you’re consuming flesh, I said that it would be “hoc est sanguis…” and balked at the gender of the pronoun. I asked what the gender of “sangre” was, and a Hispanic student said that it was feminine, “la sangre.” But then an Ivorian student pointed out that it’s “le sang” in French, i.e. masculine – and of course she’s right, as the line from the “Marseillaise” is “qu’un sang impur,” not “qu’une sang impure.” This prompted me to look up “sanguis” online, and to discover that in Latin it’s indeed masculine. So the expression logically would be “hic est sanguis meus.” But I have never seen an example of genders shifting like this from Latin to one of its Romance descendants. I wonder what caused this, and how many other words have undergone such gender-bending.

(Of course, I have also discovered in the meantime that my Latin may be logical, but it’s not what was actually said. According to the Medieval Sourcebook, the two Latin rite sentences are:




that is, “for this is my body,” and “for this is the cup of my blood.”)

Things I did not know until this year

• According to a drama major in one of my classes, a theater (-er) is a place, while theatre (-re) describes the acting profession. And here I thought it was just a British variant spelling still acceptable in the US.

• “Thespian” to describe an actor derives from Thespis of Icaria; “Thespian” as a demonym describes someone from Thespiae in Boeotia. These Thespians were with the Spartans at Thermopylae (not that the movie 300 shows them).


From the BBC, via Instapundit:

China’s Zhou Youguang, father of Pinyin writing system, dies aged 111

Chinese linguist Zhou Youguang, who created the writing system that turns Chinese characters into words using letters from the Roman alphabet, has died aged 111.

Mr Zhou and a Communist party committee spent three years developing the Pinyin system in the 1950s.

It changed the way the language was taught and helped raise literacy rates.

Mr Zhou, who was born in 1906 during the Qing Dynasty, later became a fierce critic of China’s communist rulers.

He died in Beijing on Saturday a day after his birthday, Chinese media reported.

As a young man Mr Zhou spent time in the US and worked as a Wall Street banker.

He returned to China after the communist victory in 1949 and was put in charge of creating a new writing system using the Roman alphabet.

“We spent three years developing Pinyin. People made fun of us, joking that it had taken us a long time to deal with just 26 letters,” he told the BBC in 2012.

Before Pinyin was developed, 85% of Chinese people could not read, now almost all can.

Pinyin has since become the most commonly used system globally, although some Chinese communities – particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan – continue to use alternatives.

It is also widely used to type Chinese characters on computers and smartphones, leading some to fear it could end up replacing Chinese characters altogether.

The achievement protected Mr Zhou from some of the persecution that took place under former leader Mao Zedong.

However, he was later sent to the countryside for re-education during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

In his later years he became strongly critical of the Chinese authorities and wrote a number of books, most of which were banned.

In a 2011 interview with NPR he said he hoped he would live long enough to see the Chinese authorities admit that the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been a mistake.

He said ordinary people no longer believed in the Communist Party, and that the vast majority of Chinese intellectuals were in favour of democracy.

Interesting. I’m surprised that a Wall Street banker would find employment with the Chinese Communist Party but stranger things have happened. But why did the CCP want to come up with a new system of Romanization? What was wrong with the earlier Wade-Giles system (apart from the fact that it was produced by westerners)? Pinyin isn’t entirely accurate itself – but nothing can be, given that certain sounds in Mandarin simply don’t exist in English or other European languages.

Check this out

My friend and fellow GMG member Sasha Volokh has penned a great piece in the Washington Post:

Secret Iranian Influence in the US Constitution!

Everybody knows that the essence of our structural constitution is checks and balances. “The structure of the government must furnish the proper checks and balances between the different departments,” says Madison in Federalist 51. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

But where does this concept of “check” come from? You might be able to think of a number of meanings of “check”, like to hinder or obstruct (that’s the checks and balances themselves), to verify (check whether something is true), to give up your luggage or your hat, to attack a king in chess, to draw a checkerboard pattern (like a checked shirt), or (as a noun) a financial check that you might draw on your bank. Plus, there’s the Exchequer, which is the British term for the Treasury.

Let me now blow your mind: all of these usages of “check” (including “Exchequer”) come from exactly the same root. Moreover, the root is the game of chess. Yes, the game of chess is primary, and verification, obstruction, the Treasury, and negotiable financial instruments all get their names from a metaphor derived from the game of chess.

Read the whole thing.


An amusing observation from my friend Sasha Volokh:

We call English-speaking people “Anglophones”. But remember that Britain was settled in the 5th century not just by Angles, but also by Saxons and Jutes. Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia were Anglian kingdoms, Kent was a Jutish kingdom, and Wessex, Essex, and Sussex were the kingdoms of the western, eastern, and southern Saxons. (Those seven kingdoms together make up the so-called “Heptarchy“.)

Anyway, as you know if you’ve watched The Last Kingdom, the Vikings wiped out all the kingdoms except for Wessex in the ninth century. So if the last of the surviving Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was the kingdom of the West Saxons, maybe that means we should be…


Actually, given the termination of the names of the three southern Saxon kingdoms, native speakers of English might be called “sexophones,” and speak “Sexish” (not “Anglish”). (Although let us not denigrate the subsequent influence of Danish and Norman French on the development of our great tongue!)

I Went To See the Doctor of Philosophy

I have attained the degree of “Doctor of Philosophy,” but the meanings of both of those nouns have changed from when this degree was first granted. When it was, the words essentially meant “learned lover of knowledge,” but in everyday English the meaning of “doctor” has narrowed, from “learned in an academic field” to “practitioner of the health sciences”; “philosophy” is now a specific academic field studying “the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” (I have taken exactly one philosophy course in my career, and I didn’t enjoy it very much.)

Yet I still get to wear dark blue on my hood, the color of “philosophy” in the wider sense of the word. I’ve often thought that we need to end this practice: by rights I should have a doctorate of history, and wear a color devised for my particular discipline. But with so many already taken, this is probably unfeasible. (I suppose that I could wear white, the color of the humanities – or golden yellow, the color of social science.)

If there’s one thing I dislike, though, it’s when people who hold doctorates of education wear dark blue on their hoods, or on the velvet panels on their gowns. They should wear light blue, as the code, and common courtesy, dictate.

In a similar fashion, I don’t much care for being “Dr. Good.” This is not because I feel that I’m stepping on the toes of cardiologists or radiologists, but because it’s a historical fluke that my credential comes with a title. Sure, I’ll use it on the job, but not outside of that.

The Ultimate Latin Dictionary

From NPR:

The Ultimate Latin Dictionary: After 122 Years, Still At Work On The Letter ‘N’

Stefano Rocchi, a researcher on the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, the comprehensive Latin dictionary that has been in the works since 1894 in Germany. Researchers are currently working on the letters N and R. They don’t expect to finish until around 2050.

On the second floor of an old Bavarian palace in Munich, Germany, there’s a library with high ceilings, a distinctly bookish smell and one of the world’s most extensive collections of Latin texts. About 20 researchers from all over the world work in small offices around the room.

They’re laboring on a comprehensive Latin dictionary that’s been in progress since 1894. The most recently published volume contained all the words beginning with the letter P. That was back in 2010.

And they’re not as far along as that may lead you to believe. They skipped over N years ago because it has so many long words, and now they’ve had to go back to that one. They’re also working on R at the same time. That should take care of the rest of this decade.

The Thesaurus Linguae Latinae was one of many big, scholarly projects taken on by the German government in the late 19th century.

Through two World Wars and German reunification, generations of Latin scholars have been chipping away at the same goal: documenting every use of every Latin word from the earliest Latin inscriptions in the 6th century BC up until around 200 AD, when it was in decline as a spoken language. Befitting the comprehensive nature of the project, the scholars will also include some words up to the 6th century AD.

That means poetry and history and speeches. But it also means every gravestone and street sign. It means architectural works, medical and legal texts, books about animals or cooking.

“If a word is just on a toilet in Pompeii in graffiti, you’ll find it with us,” says Marijke Ottink, who is Dutch. She’s been working on the Thesaurus for 19 years as a researcher and an editor, ever since she came to Munich.

More at the link.