Monday, September 23, 2013

Beware of Grecians

President George W. Bush once referred to our “Grecian” allies.  Knowledgeable people like you and me laughed at this silly misusage, knowing as we do that the correct adjective for people from Greece is “Greek.”

But look up the definitions of “Greek” and “Grecian” in the dictionary and you will find them almost identical—“of or pertaining to Greece or its people.”  So what’s so wrong with talking about that nice “Zorba the Grecian” who makes “Grecian salads” and “Grecian yogurt” and attends the “Grecian Orthodox Church”?

Both “Greek” and “Grecian” stem from the Latin Græcus, referring to things Greek, but “Greek” traveled into Old English by way of Germanic variants, and “Grecian” made its way to Middle English via French roots.  Both terms survive, but “Grecian” is now used mostly to refer to certain aspects of ancient Greece, such as its architecture, art, fashion, and physiognomy.   Keats wrote about a “Grecian urn,” you might have a “Grecian nose,” and a company in White Plains, New York, makes a men’s hair dye called “Grecian Formula.”  Otherwise, you’re mostly better off with “Greek.”

The work Graikhos, from which “Greek” is derived, means an inhabitant of Graia (“gray”), a town on the coast of Boeotia.  Colonists from Graia founded the city of Cumae in southern Italy around the ninth century B.C., and these were the first Greeks encountered by the Romans.

Ancient Greeks called themselves “Hellenes,” inhabitants of “Hellas,” a name derived from Hellen (not Helen of Troy), the son of Deucalion and Pyrrha in ancient Greek mythology.  Hellen’s sons, Aeolus, Dorus, and Xuthus (through his sons Achaeus and Ion), were the founders of the primary ancient Greek tribes.

“Hellenic,” incidentally, now refers to Greek culture up to 336 B. C., when Greece came under the rule of Alexander the Great, who spread its culture throughout the Near East.  Post-Alexandrine Greek civilization and cultural influences are called “Hellenistic.”

All of this is Greek to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who has other things on his so-called mind.
                        A Greek who drank too much retsina
                        Played so badly on his concertina
                        That Dmitri Mitropoulos 
                        Came down from the Acropolis
                        And served him with a subpoena.
                        So the Greek played his concertina
                        In the Italian town of Messina,
                        Until Riccardo Muti
                        Said, “I hate to seem snooty,
                        But you massacred ‘La Golondrina’.”
                        Then the Greek, with his concertina,
                        Came to Texas and found Pasadena.
                        That’s where Mickey Gilley
                        Said, “I may be a hillbilly—
                        But you sound like a laughing hyena.”
                        So the Greek scrapped his concertina,
                        Found a boat at a nearby marina,
                        And with John Barbirolli
                        And two cases of Stoli, 
                        Sailed the seas till they reached Catalina.

1 comment:

  1. Keep up the good work. I like reading your stuff.

    In this latest piece, you remind me of that old question "What's a Grecian urn?" The usual answer is something like "Not many of them manage to make more than 20 Euro an hour!".