A noted reviewer writing about The Great Gatsby, the new movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tedious novel, stated that the word “great” in the title was intended “laconically.” I wonder if he really meant that. Laconic means “terse, using few words.” It would seem that any one-word description would qualify as laconic. In the context, I’m inclined to think the intended word was ironic (“other than, and especially opposite to, the literal meaning”) or possibly sardonic (“derisively mocking, skeptically humorous”).
All three words have Greek origins, but from quite different sources. Laconic derives from Laconia, a region of ancient Greece of which Sparta was the capital. Spartan discipline was known for its rigorous austerity—as everyone knows who remembers the story of the boy who stole a fox and then allowed it to gnaw through his stomach rather than confess he was hiding it under his tunic. Austerity was also the hallmark of the speech of the Laconians. They prided themselves on what they thought of as concise wit—but the rival Athenians regarded as abrupt rudeness. Hence, laconic assumed the meaning of “brusque and terse.”
Sardonic originated with sardonion, a plant so named because it came from the island of Sardinia, and which the Greeks believed would cause facial contortions resembling derisive laughter in those who consumed it.
Finally, ironic is from the Greek eiron, meaning “one who pretends ignorance,” a a term frequently applied to the philosopher Socrates, in describing his method of questioning.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is fortunate in that he need not pretend ignorance, of any subject, since it comes quite naturally to him.
Hippocrates and Socrates
Were the best of pals.
They liked to dine and wine well,
And loved both guys and gals.
Socrates would disparage
His shrewish wife, Xanthippe;
Hippocrates shunned marriage,
And often shouted, “Yippee!”
Their history’s a mystery,
Here’s what we know of both:
Socrates took hemlock,
And Hippocrates an oath.
The loss of her philosopher
Upset the former’s wife,
For the latter, ‘twas no matter,
In his long and happy life.