Wednesday, March 30, 2016


This is just one of those random things that startled me. Some friends and I read Joyce's Finnegans Wake together every couple of weeks, and having reached the neighborhood of page 480, we encountered the word "lyceum". I know vaguely what a lyceum is, or at least that it has something to do with  education. I even know that it goes back to a teaching center of the ancient Greeks, though whether to Plato or Aristotle, I couldn't tell you.

But the odd thing is that this little passage we were reading is strewn with references to wolves--no, don't ask me why--and that lyceum is one of them. What do wolves have to do with education?

 The Salem Lyceum, circa 1830

As to current meanings, in America, a lyceum can be many things, including a hall where public lectures take place, or the series of lectures and events themselves. It can be a school, particularly a private one and may also mean a secondary school, like the French  lycée, a word to which it is related. In England, it was often the name that British literary societies adopted, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. And there is some overlap with the word "gymnasium", which is not a gym as in American usage, but a school preparing students for higher education in Germany and many other European countries. The overlap of the words' meanings is due to the fact that the gymnasium and the lyceum overlapped in time and space in their origins in ancient Greece.

Aristotle's School, by Gustav Adolf Spangenberg, 1880s

First of all, the original Greek Λύκειον or lykeion was indeed the name of a school in which Aristotle taught,  first in an open public area in a grove of trees, where many other philosophers and sophists had taught before him, Plato and Socrates being among them. Wikipedia tells us that the grove was named in honor of  Apollo. Although we tend to think of Apollo as the sun god, he had many other associations (here is a list of many of them-perhaps the most amusing to me is Apollo Erythibios, "Apollo of the mildew"). One of these many titles was Apollo Lyceus, meaning something like "Apollo in the form of a wolf". However, Apollo was also a protector against wolves. In Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, he speaks of the many strong links between Apollo and wolves, which can be contradictory. For example the myth of Apollo's birth is that  his mother Leto, impregnated by Zeus,had disguised herself and hidden in a pack of wolves when she fled to give birth to Apollo on the island of Delos, trying to escape notice of the predictably jealous Hera. But he is also invoked by shepherds to defend their sheep against wolves. (This, I feel, is an ambiguity that the Joyce of the Wake would be particularly at home with.)

the ruins of the lyceum in Athens (open to visitors)

Lopez writes that the lyceum became a gymnasium and then a hall where Aristotle taught. So in its earliest incarnation as an actual structure, the lyceum was also a gymnasium. Lopez writes that "at the southern end of the Acropolis in Athens stand the ruins of the Lyceum." Although it is contested, he goes on to say that it is probable that the building was once the temple of Apollo, the Wolf Slayer. 

Quite by chance, I was led to a book by John Patrick Lynch, who happened to be my much revered professor way back in college, with whom I studied a little bit of early Greek history and a full year of Ancient Greek language. Lynch wrote a book called Aristotle's School, which is partially available through Google books, and less so elsewhere. Here is what he has to say about Apollo Lyceus at the beginning of that book:

Despite all the later developments in the sanctuary, there is no evidence in any period to suggest that it contained a monumental temple of Apollo Lykeios. The Lyceum did include a famous statue of Apollo Lykeios, which was described by Lucian (Anacharsis 7) and is known from Roman copies...The Lyceum was clearly important in Athenian life just as a sanctuary, and even after it came to serve other functions, the site continued to be a public religious center.

Just to make things a little more ambiguous, if you look up "Apollo Lyceus" on Google, you'll soon find yourself at the Wikipedia page "Lyceus", which is all about an Apollo Lyceus type, which is a certain way of  depicting Apollo in art. It's a type that supposedly has its source in, you guessed it, the vanished statue of Apollo at the Lyceum. The type, according to Wikipedia, shows  "the god resting on a support (a tree trunk or tripod), his right forearm touching the top of his head and his hair fixed in braids on the top of a head in a haircut typical of childhood."

Apollo Lykeios at the Louvre

Not, I'm thinking, very much in his wolf-slaying mode.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Doctors Without Borders on Syria

I just watched this live webinar from Doctors Without Borders on their collective experience trying to give care to Syrians in an extremely harrowing situation. I thought that particularly on a day where Europe has seen another attack from Muslim extremists forces, it might be a good time to realize that the West is not the only place that suffers and radical Islamists are not the only one with powerful bombs at their disposal. The suffering of the innocent is everywhere.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Pamela Shows Mr. Williams A Hiding Place For Their Letters, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4

You may have the wrong idea about why I got interested in this word. That's because my attention was snagged by a secondary meaning. I was reading Samuel Richardson's Pamela recently, which,in the unlikely event you were planning to do so too, I won't spoil for you. But suffice it to say that at a certain point our eponymous heroine is detained against her will. Seeking freedom, she needs to divert one of her minders and comes up with this:

So I went towards the pond, the maid following me, and dropt purposely my hussy.

This single sentence doesn't exactly reveal what a hussy is, but it's clear it isn't our common usage, which is usually a derogatory term for women. We'll get to that. I tried to come up with what a hussy in this instance might be, and thought well, maybe it's some kind of scarf. I mean what else would you be able to drop without the person you were walking around with noticing? 

But I was wrong. A hussy turns out to be a needle case. Similar, I think, to the borrowed French word, etui. Although this interesting looking blog, Costume Historian, tells us that a hussy was usually more of a rolled up cloth with little compartments for tool, while an etui was a more generalized case which could carry an assortment of small objects. Here's a modern day reconstruction of a hussy from Nehelenia Patterns:

The interesting thing is that hussy as a needle case doesn't either precede the other use for hussy or follow it. In Pamela the word appears in both its senses. And this gets us into the other definition of the word, the one we're all more familiar with, meaning either a brazen or promiscuous woman or a saucy or impudent girl. 

But hussy originally didn't have such a pejorative meaning. In the 1520s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it simply meant the mistress of a household or a housewife. (Our needle carrying hussy also derives from this sense, I suppose the task of the housewife and her tools becoming conflated.) Housewife was pronounced  "huzzif" which made it more of a match with "husband", but in the sixteenth century, it began to be thought that there should be a bit of separation between the good housekeeper and the bad one, and so "housewife" became the more accepted way to describe the venerable matron, while hussy, well, you know where that led. 

I've come across this slow slide that words relating to females make from perfectly respectable to not respectable at all a time or two before and wonder if, in our still benighted times, anything related to the feminine simply slides toward the derogatory. "You throw like a girl," being a  more modern day example. 

It's worth quoting once again from a post on the OUP blog by linguist Anatoly Liberman called "A Flourish of Strumpets", which I quoted sometime ago in a post on the word "slattern":

The author of an old dissertation (a Swiss researcher named Margrit Keller) examined British dialectal dictionaries and found about 600 words and phrases meaning “girl” and “woman.” Most of them are derogatory and harp on a few familiar notes: slovenly, lazy, garrulous, flighty, ugly, and too accessible for men’s pleasures. One or two are interesting to a linguist.  

*The picture from the novel Pamela is from a marvelous series by Joseph Highmore an 18th century portrait painter. I found the whole series on a fascinating blog called A Most Beguiling Accomplishment, which among other things, analyses costume in paintings. I have to own that I find the painted series much more charming than I found the book, and begin to understand what its contemporary readers may have seen in it.

Joseph Highmore, self-portrait