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Photo: Sir Cam.
Says Professor James Diggle, “When I was able to sign off the final proofs … I literally wept with joy.”

Once when I was in high school in New York, my father had a temporary stay at Lenox Hill Hospital, and I trotted over in my green uniform and my monstrous stack of school books to pay him a visit. When the doctor came in, he asked me what I was studying, and my father proudly told him I was learning Ancient Greek. That’s when the doctor burst our bubble. He said he’d studied Greek for five years and never had a use for it.

Well, I ended up studying it for five years, too, and although I can’t say I ever had a practical application for it, I don’t regret it. So I was interested in today’s article about the newest, biggest ever Ancient Greek lexicon. There’s a funny angle to the story that makes me think the book would never have been purchased back in those days by that demure girls school, where the students tittered over Aucassin et Nicolette as if it were Fanny Hill.

Alison Flood reports at the Guardian, “Victorian attempts to veil the meanings of crude ancient Greek words are set to be brushed away by a new dictionary 23 years in the making. It is the first to take a fresh look at the language in almost 200 years and promises to ‘spare no blushes’ for today’s classics students.

“The late scholar John Chadwick first came up with the idea to update HG Liddell and Robert Scott’s 1889 dictionary, the Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, in 1997. An abridged version of a lexicon published in 1843, the Liddell and Scott had never been revised, and is packed with antiquated terms and modestly Victorian translations of the more colourful ancient Greek words. Despite this, it remains the most commonly used reference work for students in English schools and universities.

“It was initially thought that Chadwick’s project would take five years, but Cambridge professor James Diggle, who was then chair of the advisory committee, said it soon became clear that the Intermediate Lexicon was ‘too antiquated in concept, design and content,’ and the team would need to start afresh.

“Diggle and his fellow editors then set out on the ‘Herculean task’ of rereading most examples of ancient Greek literature, from Homer to the early second century AD. They then worked through the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet to create a modern guide for today’s students to the meanings of ancient Greek words and their development through the years. The lexicon is the first to be based on an entirely new reading of the Greek texts since 1843.

‘At the outset of the project I undertook to read everything which the editors wrote. I soon realized that if we were ever to finish I had better start to write entries myself,’ said Diggle.

“ ‘The moment of greatest relief and joy was when I was able to sign off the final proofs and say to the publisher, “It’s finished. You can print it.” You can’t imagine what it was like, to realize that we had finally got there. I literally wept with joy.’

“The completed Cambridge Greek Lexicon, which is being published by Cambridge University Press, runs to two volumes and features around 37,000 Greek words, drawn from 90 authors and set out across 1,500 pages.

“The new dictionary’s editors ‘spare no blushes,’ Diggle said, when it comes to the words that ‘brought a blush to Victorian cheeks.’ The verb χέζω (chezo), translated by Liddell and Scott as ‘ease oneself, do one’s need,’ is defined in the new dictionary as ‘to defecate’ and translated as ‘to shit.’ …

“Antiquated and offensive language also gets a makeover. While Liddell and Scott defined βλαύτη (blaute) as ‘a kind of slipper worn by fops,’ in the Cambridge Greek Lexicon it is described as ‘a kind of simple footwear, slipper.’ …

“The Cambridge Greek Lexicon also begins each entry with the root meaning of a word, a fundamentally different approach to the 19th-century lexicon, which started entries with a word’s earliest appearance in literature.

” ‘Take a word like πόλις, which will be familiar to many in its English form “polis,” ‘ said Diggle. “Our article shows the variety of senses which the word can have: in its earliest usage “citadel, acropolis”; then, more generally, “city, town” and also “territory, land”; and, more specifically, in the classical period, “city as a political entity, city-state”; also, with reference to the occupants of a city, “community, citizen body.” ‘ “

More at the Guardian, here.

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Sandra and I have been keeping an eye on a neighbor’s lotus all week, hoping to see it bloom. Today was the day. Above is what the lotus looked like at 7:30 a.m. Below is the lotus at 8 a.m., at the end of our walk.

This exciting development sent me to the Tennyson poem about Odysseus landing on the island of lotus eaters. I don’t think I had ever read the whole thing. Here are excerpts.

A land where all things always seem’d the same!
And round about the keel with faces pale,
Dark faces pale against that rosy flame,
The mild-eyed melancholy Lotos-eaters came.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem’d, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make. …

Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil, the shore
Than labour in the deep mid-ocean, wind and wave and oar;
O, rest ye, brother mariners, we will not wander more.

I’d say that’s an early example of an altered state.

According to wikipedia, however, our lotus is Nelumbo nucifera, whereas the one that hooked the Greek mariners was probably Ziziphus lotus, which doesn’t look nearly as pretty.

Sandra was interested in the showerhead-like seed pod. If you get close, you can see a blue-ish seed peeking out of every hole.

And what amazing seeds they are! As the invaluable wikipedia reveals, “An individual lotus can live for over a thousand years and has the rare ability to revive into activity after stasis. In 1994, a seed from a sacred lotus [in Northeastern China], dated at roughly 1,300 years old ± 270 years, was successfully germinated.”

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Back when Suzanne was a Girl Scout, one of the mothers (I think it was Grace) came up with a spring project, a recipe for a Greek cookie that the girls could mold into bunny shapes for Easter.

It was called koulourakia, and it was yummy. I still have a copy of the recipe the mom printed by hand. She had provided the girls with an extra challenge by listing all the ingredients as anagrams: trebut for butter, gusra for sugar, kilm for milk, and so on. They had to translate before getting started baking.

I looked online for relevant pictures. I love that the Greek recipe with the most rabbit-like photos was from a South Indian cooking site, here.

For the Girl Scout bunnies, we didn’t twist the dough as in the picture but instead formed it into fat bunny shapes.

Someone remind me to make this recipe next year.

Photo: Zesty South Indian Kitchen
Greek Easter Cookies (koulourakia)

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I don’t know what it is about stories like this, but they really float my boat.

Here is an ordinary woman, a hairdresser who loves hairdressing, who tried to recreate an ancient hairstyle and ended up making a discovery that got published in a scholarly journal. What it took was being openminded, curious, and persistent.

As Abigail Pesta writes in the Wall Street Journal, Janet Stephens tried to re-create on a mannequin a hairdo she had seen on a bust of the Roman empress Julia Domna at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

” ‘I couldn’t get it to hold together,’ she says. Turning to the history books for clues, she learned that scholars widely believed the elaborately teased, towering and braided styles of the day were wigs.

“She didn’t buy that. Through trial and error she found that she could achieve the hairstyle by sewing the braids and bits together, using a needle. She dug deeper into art and fashion history books, looking for references to stitching.

“In 2005, she had a breakthrough. Studying translations of Roman literature, Ms. Stephens says, she realized the Latin term ‘acus’ was probably being misunderstood in the context of hairdressing. Acus has several meanings including a ‘single-prong hairpin’ or ‘needle and thread,’ she says. Translators generally went with ‘hairpin.’

“The single-prong pins couldn’t have held the intricate styles in place. But a needle and thread could. It backed up her hair hypothesis.

“In 2007, she sent her findings to the Journal of Roman Archaeology. ‘It’s amazing how much chutzpah you have when you have no idea what you’re doing,’ she says. ‘I don’t write scholarly material. I’m a hairdresser.’

“John Humphrey, the journal’s editor, was intrigued. ‘I could tell even from the first version that it was a very serious piece of experimental archaeology which no scholar who was not a hairdresser—in other words, no scholar—would have been able to write,’ he says.

“He showed it to an expert, who found the needle-and-thread theory ‘entirely original,’ says Mr. Humphrey, whose own scholarly work has examined arenas for Roman chariot racing.

“Ms. Stephens’ article was edited and published in 2008, under the headline ‘Ancient Roman Hairdressing: On (Hair)Pins and Needles.’ ”

More.

Photographs: Janet Stephens

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Back in the day, I was a great fan of Mary Renault. I took her every word as gospel, down to the conversations Theseus had with Ariadne, because the stories generally meshed with what I knew from studying ancient Greek.

The Bull from the Sea was about the sea god Poseidon, who also is the god of earthquakes. I remember Renault’s description of the eerie stillness in the air before an earthquake and the strange behavior of the creatures.

So I am not at all surprised to read in the Washington Post that animals at the National Zoo knew before this week’s earthquake actually quaked that something was about to happen.

“The zoo documented a broad range of animal behavior before, during and after the tremor … . For example, a gorilla, Mandara, shrieked and grabbed her baby, Kibibi, racing to the top of a climbing structure just seconds before the ground began to shake dramatically. Two other apes — an orangutan, Kyle, and a gorilla, Kojo — already had dropped their food and skedaddled to higher turf. The 64 flamingos seemed to sense the tumult a number of seconds in advance as well, clustering together in a nervous huddle before the quake hit. One of the zoo’s elephants made a low-pitched noise as if to communicate with two other elephants. And red-ruffed lemurs emitted an alarm cry a full 15 minutes before the temblor, the zoo said.

“During the quake, the zoo grounds were filled with howls and cries. The snakes, normally inert in the middle of the day, writhed and slithered. Beavers stood on their hind legs and then jumped into a pond. Murphy the Komodo dragon ran for cover. Lions resting outside suddenly stood up and stared at their building as the walls shook. Damai, a Sumatran tiger, leaped as if startled but quickly settled down. Some animals remained agitated for the rest of the day, wouldn’t eat and didn’t go to sleep on their usual schedule.” Read the full story.

And while we’re on the subject, please read about 96 percent of a certain kind of male toad abandoning their breeding ground five days before the 2009 L’Aquila, Italy, earthquake! (That lead came via Andrew Sullivan’s blog.)

 

 

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