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What's in a Name

Burials and baksheesh

Written by - Samuel Jay Keyser, author of "I Married a Travel Junkie and the children's book "The Pond god and Other Stories", for which he received the Lee Bennett Hopkins Awards for children's poetry in 2004.

What do burials and baksheesh have in common?

It is all in the sarcophagus, the word not the object. Rome, of course, is filled with them. Some 10,000 survive and there are fragments that suggest twice as many. They are among the richest source of Roman iconography there is. On several of the tours promoted on the site, sarcophagus make up part of the itinerary. On the Vatican tour you will see an image of Achilles looking incredibly like Elvis (Presley not Costello), which goes to show what we consider handsome today is not dissimilar to what our ancestors considered handsome 2000 years ago.

So, what exactly is a sarcophagus? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a stone coffin, esp. one embellished with sculptures or bearing inscriptions, etc.” James A.H. Murray, the legendary editor of the English language’s definitive text, chose a phrase from Joseph Addison’s Remarks on Several Parts of Italy (1733) to show how the word is used. Here is the full passage describing a sarcophagus that caught Addison’s eye. (Murray used the part in bold-face for his citation.)

The sculptor had chosen the rape of Proserpine for his device, where in one end you might see the god of the underworld (Pluto) hurrying away a beautiful young virgin (Proserpine) and at the other the grief and distraction of the mother (Ceres) on that occasion. I have since observed the same device upon several Sarcophagi, that have enclosed the ashes of men or boys, maids or matrons.”

Bernini’s celebrated “Rape of Proserpine” is one work of art, in a city full of art, which any visitor to Rome should try to squeeze in.

elvis and wonder woman

Achilles “Elvis” has a short-lived love affair with The Queen of the Amazons “Wonder Woman”, the Vatican Museums, Rome.

The word sarcophagus is actually a compound word like bookseller or housekeeper. The first part sarco- comes from the Greek and means “flesh.” The second part “phagus,” also from the Greek, means “eater.” The word shows up in the classical literature in the phrase lithos sarkophagos ‘flesh-eating stone.’ It was originally an adjective used to describe a kind of stone, probably limestone, which decomposed flesh. That made it a perfect material for coffins. As the catacombs on Rome’s Appian Way testify, the Romans made great use of them between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Over time, the adjective became the noun that we use today.

Grande Ludovisi sarcophagus


A scene on the side of the “Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus (3rd century) depicting a battle between Roman and Barbarian, National Museum of Rome, Rome.

Where does baksheesh fit in? It has nothing to do with coffins. Our ultimate authority, The Oxford English Dictionary, defines it as ‘a gratuity, present of money, ‘tip’.’ It also tells us that the word comes into English via Arabic by way of the Persian b’kshīsh ‘present.’

The connection goes back to Indo-European, the parent language from which Greek and Persian descended. Persian Baksheesh and Greek phagus, the second part of sarcophagus both come from the same root in that parent language. This is how two words that take up residence in different languages can diverge beyond recognition.

If words can take on completely different appearances in different languages, they can also do the same in the same language. One way this happens is folk-etymology, a process whereby a word once familiar loses its familiarity and is changed by the “folk” into something more comfortable.

Here is an example. In Old English, the English spoken before 1000AD, there was a phrase steort nacode. It meant ‘tail naked’ in the sense of being completely naked, naked to the tail, as it were. When Old English changed into Middle English around the 11th century, the word steort changed the way it was pronounced. It sounded like modern English start. But by that time start naked made no sense. The original meaning of steort ‘tail’ was elbowed aside by Old English tægl, the word from which modern English tail has descended. When Middle English speakers came upon start naked, they had no idea what it meant. Must be a mistake, they thought. So they changed start to stark. And that’s the origin of modern English stark naked. The phrase should come with a tag that says, “Caution: folk-etymology at work.”

The most inventive example of folk etymology that I know of involves the phrase halcyon days. Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary illustrates its use with a verse from John Denham’s The Progress of Learning:

When great Augustus made war’s tempest cease
His halcyon days brought forth the arts of peace.

Denham’s use of halcyon days to describe the reign of Augustus is meant to remind us that Caesar Augustus initiated the so-called Pax Romana (the Peace of Rome) that lasted for over two hundred years. The Altar of Peace celebrating his accomplishments may still be enjoyed today under its Richard Myer’s housing on the Tiber.

Like sarcophagus there is a story behind that word halcyon. The word was borrowed into Latin and ultimately English from ancient Greek. The original Greek word was halkuōn. It meant ‘kingfisher.’ The end of the Greek word –kuōn looked just like the Greek participle meaning ‘conceiving’ from the verb kyein ‘to conceive, give birth to, swell.’ What about the beginning of the word? The hal- looked a lot like the Greek word for ‘salt,’ hals. And hals came to mean ‘sea’ because it was so salty. This process of referring to the whole of something by the name of a closely associated part is called metonymy. Calling the administrative branch of the United States government The White House is an example. For the Greeks to name the sea with the word for salt is another.

Because of these resemblances to other words, halcyon came to be understood as a compound made up of ‘sea’ + ‘conceiving’ even though it still meant kingfisher. But if the Greek word for kingfisher is made up of two elements that taken together mean ‘sea-bearing,’ there must be a reason for it. Folk-etymology came to the rescue. Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of halcyon:

A bird of which the ancients fabled that it bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating in the sea, and that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was specially calm during the period; usually identified with a species of kingfisher, hence a poetic name of this bird.

That part about “the ancients fabled” is just a fancy term for folk-etymology. That said, it is a beautiful fable. There is even a mythological daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds, who owes her existence to folk-etymology. Her name is Halycone. When her husband Ceyx is drowned in a violent storm, she throws herself into the same sea. They both become kingfishers.

Voltaire is supposed to have once said “Etymology is a science in which vowels signify nothing at all, and consonants very little.” He must not have said that during his halcyon days.



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Stephen content writer Rome

By Stephen Wheeler Licensed Tourism translator