Monday, April 29, 2013


Humor in Greek Grammar and Lexicon

T. Selby Henrey, Good Stories from Oxford and Cambridge: The Saving Grace of Humour (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., 1919), pp. 86-87 (ellipses in original):
In the Homeric Grammar by D. B. Monro, late Provost of Oriel, the following words are to be found on page 7: "Meaning of the Middle ... (2) The use in which the agent is the direct object of the action, as λούο-μαιI wash myself. This is comparatively rare." It is current in Oxford that an undergrad first detected the humorous side of this sentence.

Where is humour to be found in the Lexicon? Under the word "σῡκοφάντης, a common informer—sycophants began to multiply from the time of Pericles. Derived from ... one who informed against persons exporting figs from Attica....But this explanation is probably a mere figment."3

My attention was directed to the following Greek word by Mr. Hubert Brinton, M.A., in his sanctuary at Eton. If a prize were offered for the noun which has adapted itself to the greatest number of things, it could surely be claimed by the complaisant word σκινδαψός, as described in Liddell and Scott: I. a four-stringed musical instrument....2. a word without a meaning....II. an ivy-like tree....III. an unknown bird....IV. a what d'ye call it...."

"Once a freshman, being examined by Dr. Liddell, Dean of Christ Church, in Hall, gave a very curious translation of a Greek word. 'Where did you get that from?' asked the Dean. 'Liddell and Scott,' was the prompt answer. 'It must have been Scott then: it wasn't I,' said the Dean."1

Oxford men have been heard to say that, when Liddell and Scott's Lexicon was first published, it contained not a few touches of hidden humour, which were deleted in later editions—one explanation of this being that Scott smuggled them in and Liddell was too matter of fact to detect them.

3 See Liddell and Scott's Lexicon, 1869 ed.

1 Rev. F. Arnold.
Hat tip: Alan Crease, who writes, "BTW – the 'unknown bird' is, sadly, no longer in my edition of L&S (9th edition, 1953) as a possible meaning of the skindapsos."

Update (September 30, 2013). Christopher Stray writes:
L and S7 has the entry as described, except that 'IV' is not there, and 'what d'ye call it' is within 2.

Henrey is fun, but not reliable.

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