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Greek Origins of English Words:

Steve Kurtz (Pajama Guy) asks:

1. We've all heard of the Mississippi River Delta. Why on earth is it called a "Delta"?

2. What profession were the original "hypocrites"?

3. What animal is at the heart of "tragedy"?

4. What fruit is at the root of a "sycophant"?

5. What common household item is involved in "ostracism"?

Cool. I knew the answers to 1 and 5, but not 2, 3, and 4.

guest (mail):
tragedy = goat song
5.8.2007 3:43pm
guest (mail):
ostracize = pottery shard (on which was written the name of the person you wanted to send to exile)
5.8.2007 3:44pm
uh clem (mail):
1. We've all heard of the Mississippi River Delta. Why on earth is it called a "Delta"?

'Cause that's where the delta blues comes from, obviously:
"I'm so down low that being a gamma looks like up to me."

2. What profession were the original hypocrites"?

hypo- means under. So it was whoever worked under a Crite, which was a popular brand of Greek chariot IIRC.

3. What animal is at the heart of "tragedy"?

the heart of trAGEdy is age. So it is an old animal. Probably a dinosaur.

4. What fruit is at the root of a "sycophant"?

Whatever fruit the ophant was eating before he got sick.

5. What common household item is involved in "ostracism"?

ost is german for east, right? so ost-racism must be eastern racism. I'm gonna guess a Turkey baster.

How did I do?
5.8.2007 3:49pm
Perseus (mail):
Hypocrites=Actors
5.8.2007 3:55pm
Guest 3L (mail):
1. A river delta looks like a triangle, and so does the greek letter delta. That's my guess.

2. Doctors...the hippocratic (sp?) oath. Yet another guess.
5.8.2007 3:58pm
byomtov (mail):
We have a winner. Uh Clem in a runaway.
5.8.2007 3:58pm
StevenK:
Some interesting answers here. Some even correct. I'm just writing in to let everyone know I'll give all the answers, with explanations, on the Pajama Guy blog, tomorrow (Wednesday).
5.8.2007 4:12pm
uh clem (mail):
We have a winner.

I'll be here all week. Try the veal.
5.8.2007 4:27pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
As Guest 3L says, a river delta looks like a delta ... especially if it's the Nile delta, the eponymous delta from which all others derive their names.
5.8.2007 4:28pm
Felix Sulla (mail):
On a related note, and assuming I haven't missed it somewhere else, but where has Kevin Choset been lately?
5.8.2007 4:29pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
"sycophant" is "one who shows a fig", from Greek sy:kon "fig".
5.8.2007 4:32pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
This should make five out of five, since 'guest' has gotten #3 and #5, 'Perseus' #2 and 'Guest 3L' #1:

For #4, etymologically, sycophant means 'fig revealer', and the ancient explanation was that the original sycophants collected reward money for turning in people who hoarded figs during a famine or sold untaxed figs behind the government's back or something like that. The word then came to mean any professional informer.

That always sounded dubious to me, and I have an original theory I hope to publish in a scholarly journal some day. (Really.) Since the ancient Greek word for 'figs' also meant 'hemorrhoids', and that's a more shameful secret than a shed full of hoarded or untaxed figs, I figure sycophant originally meant someone who went around telling other people 'Simon has hemorrhoids' or perhaps expected Simon to pay him to keep his mouth shut about the latter's little problem. The fact that the Greeks thought hemorrhoids were caused by anal sex rather than just sitting in a hard chair all day long is pertinent.
5.8.2007 4:34pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Oops. I was still composing my comment when Bill Poser posted his. That's five out of five.
5.8.2007 4:35pm
KevinM:
The potsherds used in ostracism (i.e., temporary banishment) have been recovered from ancient wells, with the names (it's a who's who) still scratched on them.

Can't resist repeating the most famous ostracism tale of all (from Plutarch):
Aristides the Just was approached by a stranger who asked him for assistance in scratching the name "Aristides" on his potsherd. Aristides asked the man why he wanted to banish Aristides. The reply: "Because I tire of hearing him called 'the Just'"
Almost certainly apocryphal, but it contains an eternal truth.
5.8.2007 4:46pm
Devilbunny (mail):
The amusing thing about the Mississippi Delta, of course, is that it is neither triangle-shaped nor the actual delta of the river, which is a few hundred miles south.
5.8.2007 5:02pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
I don't recall where I read this, but apparently there are in many cases dozens or hundreds of potsherds with the same name in the same handwriting. Did professional scribes hang around to help out the illiterate? Or did factions have organized campaigns to supply 'pre-printed ballots' on ostracism day? Or was there ballot-stuffing, with the same person using ringers to vote repeatedly?
5.8.2007 5:14pm
Mark Field (mail):

Can't resist repeating the most famous ostracism tale of all (from Plutarch):
Aristides the Just was approached by a stranger who asked him for assistance in scratching the name "Aristides" on his potsherd. Aristides asked the man why he wanted to banish Aristides. The reply: "Because I tire of hearing him called 'the Just'"
Almost certainly apocryphal, but it contains an eternal truth.


You left out the end to the story: that Aristides helped the man complete the ostrakon.
5.8.2007 5:22pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Why on earth is it called a "Delta"?

Because other wise you would have to call it a "beaver".
5.8.2007 5:23pm
Perseus (mail):
From Wikipedia's entry on ostracism:

One curious window on the practicalities of ostracism comes from the cache of 190 ostraka discovered dumped in a well next to the acropolis. From the handwriting they appear to have been written by fourteen individuals and bear the name of Themistocles, ostracised before 471 BC and were evidently meant for distribution to voters. This was not necessarily evidence of electoral fraud (being no worse than modern voting instruction cards), but their being dumped in the well suggests that their creators wished to hide them. What they do indicate is that groups attempted to influence the outcome of ostracisms, although how successful these attempts were is unknown. The two-month gap between the first and second phases would have easily allowed for such a campaign.
5.8.2007 5:27pm
gab:
Hey Doc Weevil, not a criticism,I'm thinking you'd be better off publishing on some other topic. You don't want to become "the guy who's an expert on old, Greek hemorrhoids." Take my word on this one...
5.8.2007 5:29pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Nin

*
5.8.2007 5:30pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
gab,

I'm trying for "delta" expert.
5.8.2007 5:32pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
You left out the end to the story: that Aristides helped the man complete the ostrakon.

Yeah, that's a great story. Didn't tell the guy who he was, just marked it for him &walked away, doubtless thinking he was better off away from these chuckleheads for 10 years.
5.8.2007 5:35pm
Vinnie (mail):
"The potsherds used in ostracism"

Ok does that relate to the phrase "Break your plate". meaning it is time for you to move out of the house?
5.8.2007 5:44pm
King:
Sycophant does indeed mean, one who shows the fig. However, from what I've read, it came from the vulgar practice of sticking one's thumb between two fingers, indicating a vulva. Thus politicians who would refrain from insulting their opponents in public would privately tell their followers to taunt them.
5.8.2007 5:54pm
e:
Thinking shape too obvious, I was thinking differential equations and something about the flow of the river emptying... nevermind.
5.8.2007 5:58pm
Syd (mail):
Deltas get their name from the Nile Delta, which is indeed shaped like a triangle and the greek letter Delta.
5.8.2007 6:36pm
John Horowitz (mail) (www):
The commenters are missing one other important feature of the delta. River deltas are constantly changing. That is why we use the greek letter delta to represent change in mathematics.

(As I write this explanation, I realize it might sound ridiculous. But it's true, as far as I can know the mind of the Greeks.)
5.8.2007 7:08pm
Bob from Tenn (mail):
"That is why we use the greek letter delta to represent change in mathematics"

I thought we used delta as an abbreviation for "difference"
5.8.2007 11:26pm
crane (mail):

I don't recall where I read this, but apparently there are in many cases dozens or hundreds of potsherds with the same name in the same handwriting. Did professional scribes hang around to help out the illiterate? Or did factions have organized campaigns to supply 'pre-printed ballots' on ostracism day? Or was there ballot-stuffing, with the same person using ringers to vote repeatedly?


If I remember my classics right, factions would have pre-made potsherds on hand for the those whose writing ability wasn't so great. And for the lazy, of course. It's also possible that the distributors would lie about whose name was on their potsherds to take advantage of illiterate citizens. There's at least one incident in ancient Greek writing of a marginally literate citizen getting a pre-made potsherd, then thinking that the name on it didn't look right, and asking a literate friend to tell him whose name it really was.
5.8.2007 11:34pm
Dale Wyckoff (mail):
Re: Delta

The Greeks learned the alphabet from the Phoenicians sometime before 800 BC. Delta comes from dalet or daleth, the fourth letter of the Phoenician alphabet. Dalet looked like a poorly shaped triangle sitting on its side. Phoenician is a Semitic language whereas Greek is an Indo-Europia language. So the meaning of dalet was lost in the translation. It was modified so it had a more Greek sound to it, hence delta. It looked like a triangle, but at the time delta had no meaning. It later acquired the meaning from the shape of the Nile's Delta.

Dale
Source: Letter Perfect, The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet From A to Z. By David Sacks.
5.9.2007 12:13am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
Andrea Mitchell on Imus (audio) reacting to the death of two goats on the Imus ranch, makes an inadvertent joke, call it an etymological Tom Swifty.
5.9.2007 6:50am
Giannis (mail):
For a native Greek speaker, these questions are child's play. ;-)
5.9.2007 12:42pm