Friday, September 24, 2010

Flat-nose and Horse-thrift

James Davidson has a delightful article in the LRB about Greek names. You should read the whole thing; I wanted to flag this bit, though:
The most famous account of intentionality in Greek naming comes from Aristophanes’ Clouds; Strepsiades explains how he wanted to call his son Pheidonides (‘Of the Line of Thrift’) but his posh wife wanted a Hippos-name to evoke upper-class horsemanship and chariots. So they ended up with Pheidippides. That name (‘Of the line of Thrifty with Horses’?), shared with the famous long-distance runner of Marathon, shows that although the elements of a name might be transparent they might not necessarily make sense when combined.

Of course, sparing-with-horses was a sensible name, to the point of being bizarrely apt, for the guy who ran the original marathon. It is reminiscent of the kinds of things that pop up in Old English poetry, which consists almost entirely of litotes, kennings, and compound epithets. Or the Icelandic sagas -- cf. the habit of calling blood "dark beer," or saying, e.g.,
"He twisted the tail of his cloak around Thorbjorn's throat and bit through it, then snapped his head back, breaking his neck. With such rough treatment Thorbjorn quietened down considerably."
(Not to mention that the Laxdaela saga begins with a guy called Ketil Flat-nose; the Gk. for flat-nose, "Simon," is cross-culturally popular as a name for upper-class twits.)

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