September 28, 2020

Words of the Month - Athenian Democracy

         With the significance of early voting and voting by mail for this year’s elections in the USA, I thought it would be interesting to take an early look at some of the words that English has derived from classical Athens and its democracy.  However, I’m not talking about words like democracy itself (which means literally “people power or rule”), but rather a few words that have strayed a little from their original meanings and may surprise you.

idiot - The literal meaning was “private person,” with the sense of one who lacks a professional skill and does not take part in public affairs.  Pericles is supposed to have said “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all,” and some have argued that it was the Athenian attitude toward people who failed to participate in politics that shifted the sense of the word to “an ignorant or foolish person.”  However, its current definition may have come more by way of class snobbery, as in Latin it had come to mean “uneducated, ignorant.”  By Middle English it meant “a mentally deficient person.”  In any case, I hope you will not be an idiot this year, but will educate yourself (with actual facts) and take part in exercising the power of the people.

parasite - The literal meaning was “one who eats at another’s table,” with the sense of a hanger-on or sponger.  The parasitos became a stock character in fourth century Greek comedy, but the word may have been used to refer not only to those who were literally fed by others in return for flattery, but also those who reaped the benefits of Athenian life while failing to work for the city-state or participate in its democracy.  I find it particularly interesting that the scientific definition of “an organism that lives in or on another species while offering no benefit in return” is the meaning derived metaphorically from the freeloading human, rather than the other way around.

liturgy - The literal meaning was “public works,” and specifically it was a service that citizens of sufficient wealth were required to perform for the state at their own expense.  These services included sponsoring public performances, festivals, and cultural events, all the way up to paying for the building and manning of warships.  In medieval Latin the word had come to mean “a public religious service or public worship,” and from there we shifted to the current meaning of “collective formulas for the conduct of divine services in Christian churches.”  It isn’t hard to see how public works and religious works were inextricably entwined in cultures from classical Athens to medieval Europe, where church and state were not separated.  Now, however, perhaps it would behoove us to reconsider the idea of moral obligations to care for the welfare of the entire populace of our nation.

ostracism - The literal meaning was “the practice of using potsherds,” and what the Athenians used potsherds for was a medium on which to write the name of a political figure they felt should be banished.  Anyone whose name appeared on enough of these potsherds when the votes were counted was banished from Athens for 10 (or possibly 5) years, so it was severe, but not permanent.  The system was intended to limit any one man gaining a dangerous amount of power, and to get rid of one seen as an embarrassment to the state.  The connection to our modern meaning is obvious, and English was using the word to mean “expulsion or exclusion from society” by the early 17th century.

        Although we like to talk about Athenian democracy now, it was not considered a success through most of history, and our modern so-called democracies were philosophically based more on the republic of Rome than the democracy of Athens.  Be that as it may, this year it is more important than ever to vote safely (use early voting or vote-by-mail if you can, to avoid crowds) and vote for inclusion, justice, and love.

[Picture: The Greek Assembly - Oration of Demosthenes, wood engraving by HMP, from Ridpath’s Universal History, 1894.]

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