Exploring etymologies | A collaborative work between students and professors

Left to right: Edgar Garcia, Anna Simas, Konnor Clark, Emma Brobeck, Eunice Kim, Fanaye Yirga, Olga Levaniouk
Left to right: Edgar Garcia, Anna Simas, Konnor Clark, Emma Brobeck, Eunice Kim, Fanaye Yirga, Olga Levaniouk

~A Guest Post by Olga Levaniouk~

In two postings on Classical Inquiries, Gregory Nagy (2016.01.15 ) and I (2016.01.31) previewed A concise inventory of Greek etymologies (hereafter CIGE), an ongoing publication by the Center for Hellenic Studies (chs.harvard.edu) in the online journal named Classics@, Issue 18.  The goal of CIGE is to provide access to etymologies that are important for the study of Greek culture and that are often not referenced in the conventional dictionaries.

The first entries to be featured in CIGE come from Nagy’s work, and they were assembled and edited by participants in a micro-seminar that I taught at the University of Washington in Seattle in the fall of 2015.  The title of the micro-seminar, “Greek Etymology as Cultural History in the Work of Gregory Nagy,” was meant to highlight the relevance of etymological research to the study of poetry, religion, and history—a relevance so well demonstrated in Nagy’s work.

This seminar was offered in conjunction with Nagy’s visit to Seattle to give this year’s McDiarmid lecture at the invitation of our graduate students. These annual lectures, initiated in 2000-2001 in honor of former Professor John McDiarmid and his wife Mary, are major happenings in our department. They are sponsored by the department and organized by the graduate students, who select and invite the speaker and run the event. As is the custom here at the University of Washington, a faculty member may offer a micro-seminar in preparation for a particularly important talk, to read and discuss the work of the speaker.  Our seminar had the support both of the Classics Department and of the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities. The Simpson Center generously provided us with a classroom in their beautiful premises.

In the fall of 2015, we met every second week to read and discuss works by Nagy, and in particular his etymologies. The focus was not on the linguistic minutiae of the etymologies but rather on their place in the overall context of Nagy’s work, and also on the major themes of this work, etymological or not. We read parts of his books (The Best of the Achaeans, Greek Mythology and Poetics, Homer the Preclassic, Homer the Classic, Masterpieces of Metonymy), some of his articles (“Asopos and his multiple daughters: Traces of preclassical epic in the Aeginetan Odes of Pindar,” “A poetics of sisterly affect in the Brothers Song and in other songs of Sappho”) and also some Classical Inquiries blogs (“East of the Achaeans: making up for a lost opportunity while reading Hittite texts,” “Sappho’s ‘ fire under the skin’ and the erotic syntax of an epigram by Posidippus,” “Herodotus and a Courtesan from Naucratis,” “Classical Variations on a Story about an Egyptian queen in love”). I attempted to include things that are by now classics in their own right and also new things, printed and online publications, works that involve comparison with other Indo-European languages, and other works that are focused solely on Greek.  Trying to give the students a good overall sense of the work of my Doktorvater and teacher was an exciting task, but selecting what to read was terribly hard. Time flew and there was not nearly enough of it for everything I wanted to do.

For their writing assignment, the students were asked to contribute draft entries for CIGE. The choice of the etymologies was theirs, though I suggested some of my favorites, old and new: Akhaioí, Akhilleús, therápōn, Sarpēdṓn, Asōpós, ánthrōpos, mérōps, prooímion, húmnos, Hómēros, poikílos, poikíllein, Sapphṓ, Dōríkha, Lárikhos, Kháraxos.

All these words are discussed in Nagy’s work, but they are not all etymologies in same sense. This brings me back to the mission of CIGE, which is not to replicate etymological dictionaries, but to focus on cultural history and go beyond reconstruction.  From the entry for therápōn in Beekes’ Etymological Dictionary of Greek, for example, one reads (1) that this word means “attendant, servant, companion”; (2) that this word and its derivatives, according to Beekes, are of pre-Greek origin; and (3) that Nadia Van Brock (Revue Hittite et Asianique 1959: 117-126) compared it to Hittite tarpassa-. All this is very useful information, but what the reader cannot find in this etymological dictionary is the implications of Van Brock’s suggestion for understanding the word therápōn in Homer and the support that this suggestion receives from the Homeric usage of this word. What the reader will find in CIGE is a summary of, and a reference to, Nagy’s argument:  that, just as the Hittite word means not ‘servant’ but ‘ritual substitute’ so “there is a Greek reflex of the Hittite semantics in the Iliadic application of the title therápōn to Patroklos (Iliad XVI 244, etc.), the hero who was killed while wearing the armor of Achilles and who functions in the Iliad as the actual surrogate of Achilles.”  In reviewing and discussing this argument with the students of the micro-seminar, I was reminded yet again of the crucial difference that this kind of research makes for our understanding of Homer.

As a student myself I was captivated by the depths that can be uncovered in Homeric poetry by an etymology (broadly understood) when it is studied as part of Homeric diction, by its power to turn a general word into a precise one, a colorless one into one full of meaning.  Attention to linguistic detail is all-important in Nagy’s work, indispensable even —perhaps, especially— in the grand historical project he undertakes in Homer the Classic and Homer the Preclassic, the project of reconstructing the evolution of Homeric poems back through time, from the textual period into the pretextual, from Virgil back into the Bronze Age.

I attempted to convey to my students in the micro-seminar this inductive connection between linguistic detail and literary interpretation or historical reconstruction, though they will be the judges of whether I did so successfully or not. I had a wonderful time teaching the seminar, connecting anew with Nagy’s work and seeing it in a different way through the opinions and questions of my students. I am very grateful to them for their contribution to CIGE.


Christina Lafi recently posed a few questions to some of the participating students about their experience.

Q. How did the idea for this beautiful project emerge?

Emma Brobeck: Every year, the graduate students in the UW Department of Classics host the John B. and Mary K. McDiarmid Lectureship. For several years now, we have been interested in Dr. Nagy visiting as the McDiarmid Lecturer, so we were very excited when he accepted our invitation to give a talk at the University of Washington. One of our own esteemed professors, Dr. Olga Levaniouk, is a friend and colleague of Dr. Nagy, and she arranged to lead a micro-seminar centered around his work in preparation for his visit. The class itself revolved around a careful selection of Dr. Nagy’s best known as well as most recent works. On the first day Dr. Levaniouk explained the idea of arranging a sort of etymological guide to Dr. Nagy’s writings, and we quickly put together a collaborative document that could be accessed and edited by everyone in the group. For the graduate students this allowed for a streamlined way of approaching a vast amount of material, and we were better able to explain complex research to one another by working together.

Q. How did you decide to choose Professor Nagy as your visiting professor?

Megan O’Donald: The graduate students elected Dr. Nagy as our 2016 McDiarmid speaker because of his influence in the fields of Homeric studies and etymology, and because the wide range of topics on which he has published made him an appealing choice for students with diverse interests in Classical Antiquity. Anyone who has taken a class on Homer with Dr. Levaniouk is acquainted with Dr. Nagy’s work, and many of us have engaged with his ideas in our own research. We were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to interact with him in person.

Q. What were the different steps of the project?

Danny Miller: Each week we read a set of articles, often centered around specific words or themes. We each then composed an etymological entry based on those articles.

Eunice Kim: After composing our individual entries, we combined them into a single Google document, and used it to unpack the many different subjects Dr. Nagy explores in his papers. We often started by retracing Dr. Nagy’s methodological reconstructions, and gradually delved into more detailed discussions about hero cult, contractual mythology, thalassocracies, performance, reception, and other issues of both local and panhellenic scope.

Q. What was your experience at the microseminar?

Edgar A. García: Since I had previously only read Nagy’s work in a very cursory manner, the micro-seminar allowed me to truly engage with Nagy’s vast and widely influential scholarly work. As Dr. Levaniouk led us through discussions of the various assigned readings, I gained a greater understanding of and appreciation for Dr. Nagy’s etymologies. Through use of the concepts presented in the micro-seminar, I am now better attuned to word play and metapoetic interaction in the works of Greek authors.

Emma Brobeck: Because Dr. Nagy’s body of work is so extensive, a compilation of his etymologies is a very useful tool. We hope that future readers of Nagy’s work and those interested in etymologies will find this to be a valuable resource.

Q. Do you believe that the personal goal that you had set when you decided to work on this project was met?

Anna Simas: As the micro-seminar progressed, I became really interested in how we can apply some of Nagy’s etymologies and theories to Ovid. I was happy to learn that some of Nagy’s theories can apply just as well to Ovid as to Homer! Discovering that the material we talked about in the micro-seminar was applicable to research that I was working on in other areas of Classics was really exciting for me.

Eunice Kim: Since I’m primarily interested in myths, I was keen to see how it was possible to disentangle those with complex, and often contradictory, traditions. Dr. Nagy’s article on Asopus (https://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5098) was particularly illuminating for me in that regard, since it showed that even though myths change from place to place and time to time, that evolution can still be traced. Through the micro-seminar, I saw time and again that a linguistic and historical approach is integral to such an end. That dual approach is one I will bring into my own research.

Q. How did you interact with each other during the seminar?

Anna Simas: It was a very collaborative experience. Because we were using a Google Document to collect all of our etymologies, we were able to read each other’s work and discuss the information that people had mined from Dr. Nagy’s work. The discussions in class were always enlightening and fruitful.

Q. What was the individual experience and what was the group experience like? 

Anna Simas: For me, the individual experience, like the group experience, was pretty collaborative. This was largely because it was very helpful for me to discuss the ideas that Dr. Nagy proposed with others when I was compiling my etymologies.

Edgar A. García: Although we did the assigned readings and wrote the etymological entries on our own, it was not until we met in the seminar and discussed both the readings and our individual etymologies that we were able to fully appreciate the complexity and nuances at play both in the arguments, in the readings, and in the various etymologies. Dr. Levaniouk’s guidance in close-reading of the etymologies and her methodical approach to our discussions were invaluable.

Q. If you could describe in just a few words what you got out of this past semester’s journey, what would you say?

Eunice Kim: I came into the seminar wondering why some scholars don’t accept etymologies as a legitimate analytic lens to discuss poetry, mythology, and culture. Having come out, I still don’t understand. During a discussion of the words therápōn and opáōn, for example, I found that etymologies opened up an interesting aspect of contractual mythology: charioteering. This led to a broader discussion about the techniques and division of roles depicted in Homer, which could then be related to an imperial ideology. So really I got more than just etymologies out of the micro-seminar; I also got many other elements of culture (Greek and Roman, and even Hittite and Indic!).

Q. What is, in your opinion, that you get to ‘treasure’ as you completed the seminar and your important work?

Eunice Kim: I’ve amassed many ‘treasures’ from this experience, but a particularly valuable one is Dr. Nagy’s etymology for Akhaioí, which was used to argue for the existence of a Mycenaean Empire in the 2nd millennium BCE. I doubt I would’ve learned about this etymology and its implications without my participation in the micro-seminar. Now I regularly read Classical Inquiries and other online publications from CHS so I won’t miss out on any more exciting ideas.

Anna Simas: I would have to agree with Eunice’s final point. I had read Classical Inquiries a few times prior to taking the micro-seminar, but now I read it every week. It’s a wonderful way to engage with current trends in Classics!