Palin and Lalia
Theological Terms I
Theological Terms II
Theol. Terms III
Noso and Noce/Nocu
Milton, Book I (PL)
Oo and Ovi
Labors of Hercules I
Oblectation et al.
Dissimulare et al.
Acroama et al.
Tetrous et al.
Commeate et al.
Obsolete et al.
Subtle et al. I
Hesitate et al. (Ovid)
Excoriate et al. I
Excoriate et al. II
Ovid's Wonders--the Metamorphoses
Bill Long 2/6/09
From Gemonies to Nexus to Imbricate to Orbity
As I am reading Ovid's Metamorphoses, annotated nicely in my 1964 edition of a 3rd year Latin text, I discover that I really could spend nearly all my life just getting to the bottom of Latin words. They tell us so much about ourselves; they provide vivid pictures of life. Indeed, spending time sorting out classical roots of words and their impact on English is, in my judgment, one of the more important tasks of life. Well, to justify that, let's begin with a few words, derived mostly from the story of Niobe in Book VI of the Metamorphoses.
1. Let's begin with a confusing word--orbem, which leads to the English orbity, orbitude. When you see a word orbem in Latin, you immediately run to orbis, orbis and think "hm...world, accusative singular of a feminine third declension noun." At least, that is what I think you probably think. But there is also an adjective orbus, a, um, whose accusative singular masculine would also be orbem, though this means "bereft, deprived, bereaved, without parent." In fact, the OED sort of suggests that our word orphan relates to the rare English word "orb," which means "childless"--even though an orphan is parentless. In any case, we have orbity, a word the OED calls "obsolete," which means "a bereavement, esp. the loss of a child or the state or condition of being bereaved." From 1750: "Nothing seems to have been more universally dreaded by the ancients than orbity or want of children." Recovering orbitude to mean "bereavement" is probably not as important as passing an economic stimulus package, but it ranks up there..
2. When Apollo began skewering the sons of Niobe after his mother was insulted by Niobe, he managed to kill two of them at the same time. They were locked in a wrestling competition, and the archer's skilled shot pierced both of them. They (Phaedimus and Tantalus) groaned, fell and died together. The Latin word for "they groaned" is ingemuere. After looking at the word for a second, I decided to take a little linguistic trip. I discovered that behind ingemuere was the simple verb gemo, to groan. The word has more meanings, of course, but that one is the key. I wondered how ingemuere related to the idea of twins (gemini), and realized that the addition of the extra syllable between gemo and gemini made all the difference. Yet, when words like this come into English, some confusion may arise. We have words such as gemellion, which is a word from classical archaeology meaning "one of a pair of basins used for washing the hands before meals." But more to the point is gemination or the verb geminate, which means to "to double" or, in the technical language of dentistry, "of two contiguous teeth: to be united." Thus, from 1881: "It appeared to consist of the two central incisors geminated." Gemination means "doubling, duplication, repetition," and even at one time had a meaning in rhetoric. From 1666: "Here are two expressions that intimate unto us the unavoidable approach of these decrepit years, i.e., come and draw nigh, of which gemination, signifying the same thing, I might well say..."
There is also a word gement in the OED, meaning "groaning, lamenting," such as in "his downcast countenance, from which emerged plaintive and gement words." But when learning about these I came across the word gemonies, another term from classical studies, attested in both the OED and Century. The Century suggests it was aken from the Latin gemere (to groan), and it signified: "A flight of steps on the Aventine hill in ancient Rome, to which bodies of executed criminals were dragged by hooks to be thrown into the Tiber." One use of the term, from Massinger (1626) is as follows:
"No day passes
In which some are not fasten'd to the hook,
Or thrown down from the Gemonies."
But there is a slight confusion in the OED definition. First of all, it isn't convinced that the Century's etymology is correct. It has, according to the OED, "little probability." Then, its definition is the same as that in the Century, but its most recent quotation was from Blount's Glossography, "Gemony (gemoniae scalae), a place in Rome where condemned persons were cast down by a pair of stairs head-long into the River Tiber." My question--was the guy dead before or after they dragged him down the steps? Was the Tiber River the thing that was supposed to kill him and drag him away or only the latter? These are agonizingly unimportant details, of course, but not if you want to keep your narratives straight. I guess I should probably call a Christian fundamentalist, who perhaps has just written about harmonizing the accounts of Jesus' life in the Four Gospels, and ask him/her to comment. I probably would receive something like this:
'Obviously what happened was that the criminals were in such bad shape when they were hurled down the steps that sometimes they were dead already, sometimes the impact of the stairs killed them, and sometimes the Tiber itself caused the coup de grace.'
I am just imagining that type of response, but it comes from lots of years of dealing with "harmonists." Sometimes things can be harmonized; other times it seems to be special pleading. Plead on, though now at least I have the word gemonies in my mind.
I only got through two words; more to come.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long