Thursday, March 20, 2014

Word Odyssey: Tantalizing Words from Greek Myths

Posted By on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 9:00 AM

  • Image courtesy of Shutterstock

To mark their victory over the Ottoman Empire that had ruled them for centuries, the Greeks celebrate March 25th as their Independence Day. In honor of their Independence Day, this week’s column will feed your inner nerd with English words that trace back to those wonderful Greek myths. What word should I start with? Well, Odyssey, of course!

We use it to refer to long, wandering journeys, usually involving hardship. That’s from The Odyssey, the epic poem attributed to Homer, the blind Greek poet, around the 9th century B.C., about the adventures of Odysseus on his way home from the Trojan war. It’s the first adult book I read to my son when he was a boy, so it holds a dear place in my heart, and gives this column its title.

The gods in Greek mythology often were cruel, punishing with enduring torture mortals whose names have endured by being converted into familiar English words. For example, there’s Tantalus, a Greek King who was given the privilege of dining with the gods at Olympus. After the feast, Tantalus stole off with nectar and ambrosia, the foods of the gods. The gods found out, as they always do. As punishment for revealing their secrets, the gods stood Tantalus in a body of water with grapes just above him. When he reached for them, the grapes were pulled just beyond his grasp, enticing him with what he could never have. Hence: the word tantalize, meaning some desirable thing dangled in front of us that we can’t have—maybe the wife of a best friend, or a chocolate bar on the counter when we’re on a diet.

If you sometimes feel the weight of the world on your shoulders, then you’ll empathize with Atlas, the titan defeated in battle by the Olympian gods. The victorious Zeus banished Atlas to the edge of the Earth, where he was condemned to hold the sky on his shoulders through eternity. We use atlas mostly as the name of a collection of maps put together in a book. Here’s how that happened. One of the early mapmakers, the Flemish cartographer Gephard Mercator, put a picture of Atlas holding the globe on the title page of his book. From there, a published collection of maps came to be known as an atlas.

The god Morpheus could take any human shape, and also sent dreams, giving us the word morphine, the pain medicine known for inducing sleep and dreams, as well as the word morph, for changing shape. Morpheus' siblings include Phantasos, the god of fantasies, and Phobetor, the god of fearsome dreams, which can induce phobias, and Hypnos, the god of sleep. From “Hypnos” we get hypnosis, a trancelike state with enhanced susceptibility to the power of suggestion.

Hypnosis was coined by a Scottish doctor, James Braid, in the mid-1800’s. On a side note, Dr. Braid did not invent hypnosis. That honor belongs to an 18th century German doctor by the name of Mesmer, who had patients swallow iron, then claimed to move fluids through the body by using magnets, eventually producing cures for whatever ailed the patient. Mesmer called this Animal Magnetism. After moving to Paris, Mesmer became an instant sensation. But many in Paris thought he was a charlatan, basically manipulating patients through a pre-magnetism ritual that heightened suggestibility. Louis XVI appointed a panel to investigate Mesmer’s claims, which did not end well for him. Eventually he had to leave Paris, leaving in his wake a new word, mesmerize.

If your mate no longer mesmerizes you, maybe it’s because of your mate’s hygiene, a word that derives from Hygeia, the Greek goddess of health. Don’t panic—which comes from Pan, the god of shepherds, fields and forests, who caused sudden, irrational fear. To rekindle desire you might try an aphrodisiac, named after the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. Or you and your mate might share some erotica, named for Eros, Greek god of sensuous love. But perhaps the problem is that your mate has become a harpy, which is as a nasty nag of woman, named for the hideous winged spirits who tortured people on their way to the underworld. If your mate is male, maybe he’s been hectoring you; that is, he’s a verbal bully. Now, it doesn’t seem fair that Hector, the mightiest Trojan warrior in Homer’s Iliad, should have his name attached to such a word, but then again, his nemesis, Achilles, has his name attached not to his renowned strength, but with weakness: the only vulnerable spot on Achilles was his heel, where Paris shot his arrow, killing Achilles.

We all have an Achilles’ heel, right? That can be hard on the psyche, who was the mortal girl that Eros fell in love with, but which today we think of as our mental constitution.

There are so many English words inspired by Greek myths that I can’t get to them all in one column, but maybe you’d agree that it was a Herculean effort.

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