How to Anger English Majors

shakespeareI love languages.  I specialize in the “dead” languages of Greece and Rome.  But the history and development of languages has always fascinated me.  I was hooked the first moment I heard about Indo-European (which was first hypothesized by William Jones, whom I hope is a long lost relative).    One thing I firmly believe about language is that grammar is primarily descriptive not prescriptive.  Though it does give us rules about (prescribes) HOW to speak, it is mainly a reflection of (describes) how we in fact DO speak.   Languages change.  And as languages change, so do the rules.  One group of people who just don’t get this is English majors.  Maybe because they enjoy knowing the rules and condescending to those who don’t, who knows?  But in keeping with the holiday season, I give you 2 things that are absolutely true about English but which will absolutely infuriate English majors. Continue reading

Scylla and Charybdis: Between Fear and Courage

According to Greek Myth, Scylla (pronounced SIL-ah) and Charybdis (pronounced kah-RIB-dis) were monsters that inhabited opposite sides of a channel of water, sometimes imagined as the Strait of Messina separating Italy from Sicily.  Scylla, a former lover of Poseidon, had been transformed into a hideous beast by the poisoned bath salts of Poseidon’s angry wife Amphitrite.  Charybdis was a massive underwater beast, later rationalized as a whirlpool, that would drink in ocean water three times a day and spew it out again.  Sailors had to choose how to navigate the hazard.  If you sailed too close to Scylla, she would snatch 6 people from your ship, but the rest would survive.  If you went to close to Charybdis, you risked your whole ship being sucked down and destroyed.  “Caught between Scylla and Charybdis” was the ancient equivalent to our “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”  Continue reading

The Original Marathon Run

English: Painting of Pheidippides.

Around this time of year, 2,502 years ago, the Athenian phalanx defeated a much larger Persian expeditionary-force at the Battle of Marathon. And so, to commemorate this achievement, hundreds of thousands of Americans will run 26.2 miles and call themselves “marathoners.”

But really, they’re not commemorating the battle; they’re commemorating the run that followed. After the victory on the plains of Marathon, the Athenians sent a messenger back to Athens to bring the good news. The runner quickly covered the 26.2 miles between Marathon and Athens, alerted his countrymen that they need worry no longer, and then died of exhaustion. It’s a very romantic tale. Too bad it’s not true. Continue reading

Eos, Tithonus, and the Elderly

There is a Greek myth about Eos (Roman: Aurora), the goddess of the Dawn, falling in love with Tithonus, a mortal man.  She laments that while she will live forever, he is doomed to die.  She asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality.  But she fails to ask in addition that Tithonus remain eternally youthful.  Tithonus, therefore, is doomed to grow old but never die.  The story continues that as Tithonus ages his body becomes brittle, his mind deteriorates, and his speech becomes mere babbling.  Eos is saddened by the gradual loss of Tithonus’  strength and sense, and though in the story she loses sexual attraction towards Tithonus, she does not abandon him.  She transforms him into a cicada so that no one will fault his mindless chirping or fragile body.

Interpreters frequently focus on this myth as either an etiology,  explaining the origin of cicadas; or as a cautionary tale along the lines of the Oscar Wilde quote: “When the gods choose to punish us, they merely answer our prayers.”   While both interpretations have their merits,  I would like to suggest that this myth has to do with how societies treat the elderly. Continue reading