Thursday, December 16, 2010


Etymology of Greek Names

Jonathan Swift, from A Discourse to Prove the Antiquity of the English Tongue, Shewing, from Various Instances, that Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, Were Derived from the English:
I will begin with the Grecians, among whom the most ancient are the great leaders on both sides in the siege of Troy; for it is plain, from Homer, that the Trojans spoke Greek as well as the Grecians. Of these latter, Achilles was the most valiant. This hero was of a restless, unquiet nature, never giving himself any repose either in peace or war; and therefore as Guy of Warwick was called a kill-cow, and another terrible man a kill-devil, so this general was called A-kill-ease, or destroyer of ease ; and, at length, by corruption, Achilles.

Hector, on the other side, was the bravest among the Trojans. He had destroyed so many of the Greeks by hacking and tearing them, that his soldiers, when they saw him fighting, would cry out, "Now the enemy will be hack't, now he will be tore." At last, by putting both words together, this appellation was given to their leader under the name of Hacktore; and, for the more commodious sounding, Hector.

Diomede, another Grecian captain, had the boldness to fight with Venus, and wound her; whereupon the goddess, in a rage, ordered her son Cupid to make this hero to be hated by all women, repeating it often that he should die a maid; from whence, by a small change in orthography, he was called Diomede. And it is to be observed, that the term maiden-head is frequently, at this very day, applied to persons of either sex.

Ajax was, in fame, the next Grecian general to Achilles. The derivation of his name from A jakes, however asserted by great authors, is, in my opinion, very unworthy both of them and of the hero himself. I have often wondered to see such learned men mistake in so clear a point. This hero is known to have been a most intemperate liver, as it is usual with soldiers; and, although he was not old, yet by conversing with camp-strollers, he had got pains in his bones, which he pretended to his friends were only age-aches; but they telling the story about the army, as the vulgar always confound right pronunciation, he was afterwards known by no other name than Ajax.

The next I shall mention is Andromache, the famous wife of Hector. Her father was a Scotch gentleman, of a noble family still subsisting in that ancient kingdom. But, being a foreigner in Troy, to which city he led some of his countrymen in the defence of Priam, as Dictys Cretensis learnedly observes, Hector fell in love with his daughter, and the father's name was Andrew Mackay. The young lady was called by the same name, only a little softened to the Grecian accent.

Astyanax was the son of Hector and Andromache. When Troy was taken, this young prince had his head cut off, and his body thrown to swine. From this fatal accident he had his name; which has, by a peculiar good fortune, been preserved entire, A sty, an ax.

Mars may be mentioned among these, because he fought against the Greeks. He was called the god of war; and is described as a swearing, swaggering companion, and a great giver of rude language. For when he was angry, he would cry, " Kiss my a—se, My a—se in a bandbox, My a—se all over;" which he repeated so commonly, that he got the appellation of My a—se; and by a common abbreviation, Mars: from whence, by leaving out the mark of elision, Mars. And this is a common practice among us at present; as in the words D'anvers, D'avenport, D'anby, which are now Danvers, Davenport, Danby, and many others.

The next is Hercules, otherwise called Alcides. Both these names are English, with little alteration; and describe the principal qualities of that hero, who was distinguished for being a slave to his mistresses, and at the same time for his great strength and courage. Omphale, his chief mistress, used to call her lovers her cullies; and because this hero was more and longer subject to her than any other, he was in a particular manner called the chief of her cullies: which, by an easy change, made the word Hercules. His other name, Alcides, was given him on account of his prowess; for, in fight, he used to strike on all sides; and was allowed on all sides to be the chief hero of his age. For one of which reasons, he was called All sides, or Alcides; but I am inclined to favour the former opinion.

A certain Grecian youth was a great imitator of Socrates; which that philosopher observing, with much pleasure said to his friends, "There is an Ape o' mine own days." After which the young man was called Epaminondas, and proved to be the most virtuous person, as well as the greatest general of his age.

Ucalegon was a very obliging inn-keeper of Troy. When a guest was going to take horse, the landlord took leave of him with this compliment, "Sir, I should be glad to see you call again." Strangers, who knew not his right name, caught his last words: and thus by degrees, that appellation prevailed, and he was known by no other name even among his neighbours.

Hydra was a great serpent, which Hercules slew. His usual outward garment was the raw hide of a lion, and this he had on when he attacked the serpent; which, therefore, took its name from the skin the modesty of that hero devolving the honour of his victory upon the lion's skin, called that enormous snake the Hyderaw serpent.

Leda was the mother of Castor and Pollux; whom Jupiter embracing in the shape of a swan, she laid a couple of eggs; and was therefore called Laid a, or Leda.

As to Jupiter himself, it is well known that the statues and pictures of this heathen god, in Roman Catholic countries, resemble those of St. Peter, and are often taken the one for the other. The reason is manifest: for when the emperors had established Christianity, the heathens were afraid of acknowledging their heathen idols of the chief God, and pretended it was only a statue of the Jew Peter. And thus the principal heathen god came to be called by the ancient Romans, with very little alteration, Jupiter.

The Hamadryades are represented by mistaken antiquity, as nymphs of the groves. But the true account is this: They were women of Calabria, who dealt in bacon; and living near the sea-side, used to pickle their bacon in salt water, and then set it up to dry in the sun. From whence they were properly called Ham-a-dry-a-days, and in process of time, misspelt Hamadryades.

Neptune, the god of the sea, had his name from the tunes sung to him by the Tritons, upon their shells, every neap or nep tide. The word is come down to us almost uncorrupted, as well as that of Tritons, his servants; who, in order to please their master, used to try all tones till they could hit upon that he liked.

Aristotle was a peripatetic philosopher, who used to instruct his scholars while he was walking. When the lads were come, he would arise to tell them what he thought proper; and was therefore called Arise to tell. But succeeding ages, who understood not this etymology, have, by an absurd change, made it Aristotle.

Aristophanes was a Greek comedian, full of levity, and gave himself too much freedom; which made graver people not scruple to say, that he had a great deal of airy stuff in his writings: and these words, often repeated, made succeeding ages discriminate him Aristophanes. Vide Rosin. Antiq. l. iv.

Alexander the Great was very food of eggs roasted in hot ashes. As soon as his cooks heard he was come home to dinner or supper, they called aloud to their under-officers, All eggs under the grate; which repeated every day at noon and evening, made strangers think it was that prince's real name, and therefore gave him no other; and posterity has been ever since under the same delusion.

Pygmalion was a person of very low stature, but great valour; which made his townsmen call him Pigmy lion: and so it should be spelt; although the word has suffered less by transcribers than many others.

Archimedes was a most famous mathematician. His studies required much silence and quiet; but his wife having several maids, they were always disturbing him with their tattle or their business; which forced him to come out every now and then to the stair-head, and cry, "Hark ye, maids; if you will not be quiet, I shall turn you out of doors." He repeated these words, Hark ye, maids, so often, that the unlucky jades, when they found he was at his study, would say, " There is Hark ye, maids; let us speak softly." Thus the name went through the neighbourhood; and at last grew so general, that we are ignorant of that great man's true name to this day.

Strabo was a famous geographer; and to improve his knowledge, travelled over several countries, as the writers of his life inform us; who likewise add, that he affected great nicety and finery in his clothes; from whence people took occasion to call him the Stray beau; which future ages have pinned down upon him very much to his dishonour.

Peloponnesus, that famous Greek peninsula, got its name from a Greek colony in Asia the Less ; many of whom going for traffic thither, and finding that the inhabitants had but one well in the town of ****, from whence certain porters used to carry the water through the city in great pails, so heavy that they were often forced to set them down for ease: the tired porters, after they had set down the pails, and wanted to take them up again, would call for assistance to those who were nearest, in these words, Pail up and ease us. The stranger Greeks, hearing these words repeated a thousand times as they passed the street, thought the inhabitants were pronouncing the name of their country, which made the foreign Greeks call it Peloponnesus, a manifest corruption of Pail up and ease us.

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