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August 16, 2019  |  Friday words #184  |  2810 hit(s)

They train relentlessly. They scorn luxury and comfort. They speak little. Everything about them is devoted to one thing: war.

Navy SEALs? Delta Force? Royal Marine Commandos? No. (Well, yes, but that's not who I'm talking about.) I speak of course of the Spartans, denizens of Sparta (aka Laconia), the ancient city-state in Greece that was famous then, and continues to be famous now, for its single-minded devotion to military preparedness. Spartans were willing to sacrifice themselves in the defense of their principles, as we all know from reading about the Battle of Thermopylae.

Their culture has come down to us in the language. Something that's spartan is austere. Someone who's laconic is terse to the point of rudeness.

It's also come down to us in this week's new-to-me-word: laconophilia, which refers to an admiration for all things Spartan. Our own culture has imbibed the Spartan ideal. There are many cities named Sparta in the United States, and who can even count the number of sports teams that are the Spartans.[1] And check out the article Why Spartans Make Better Lovers, where "Spartans" are people who participate in a grueling sports event called the Spartan Race.

What I learned about this word was not just what it meant, but that it's … problematic. In a couple of ways, actually. One is that the mythologization (?) of the Spartans is about as ancient as Sparta itself; ancient Greeks from elsewhere (including Plato) tended to point to the Spartans as an idealized people. This sort of thing continued through the ages—other laconophiles included folks like Machiavelli and Rousseau and Hitler.

The other problem with laconophilia is that it's kind of wrong? Yes, the Spartans were great warriors, but they did actually lose their most famous battle, and their opponent—Xerxes—rampaged through Greece. Yes, they were "free men," as long as you don't count the slaves who held their society together (and often fought alongside the elite warriors). Yes, they were physically impressive, but they ruthlessly culled the infirm. As Myke Cole puts it in The New Republic, "The problem is, the Spartan myth is so full of holes you could use it to drain pasta."

So the word laconophilia can refer neutrally to admiration of a disciplined society. But it's also wrapped up with disturbing notions like eugenics and racism and authoritarianism. Reading about laconophilia has started affecting everything I know, or think I know, about that ancient society.

Update 2019 Dec 14: There a good post on the Kiwi Hellenist blog that goes into this whole laconphilia business in detail, including some more on the military history and caste system of the Spartans.

Let's move to origins. I heard a great one from the Allusionist podcast (around 21:30) about the word halcyon, meaning something calm and peaceful. The word halcyon comes from Greek halkyon, which refers to a kingfisher. There story is supposedly that halcyon came to mean "calm" because of a myth about a bird—a kingfisher—who could calm the seas in December in order to have a quiet time for nesting. This is a story we inherited in English; the fanciful origin itself goes back to the Greeks.

The real story is probably that there was a word alkyon in Greek to refer to a bird, which might have been borrowed from some other language that we have no record of. The Greeks reinterpreted the word as hals+kyon, roughly meaning "sea"+"conceive." This process of reinterpreting a word of foreign origin to make it more sensible is known as folk etymology. And the process of inventing a fanciful etymology is also known as folk etymology, or as we've seen elsewhere, etymythology. Here we have a particularly good combination of etymology and mythology. But it's stuck with us—not only do we have halcyon, but the genus name for kingfishers is Alcedinidae.

[1] I was surprised to learn that there's school in Los Angeles whose mascot is nickname is the Athenians.

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Anonymous   17 Aug 19 - 7:33 PM

One of my school’s sports team names is Athenas:


mike   18 Aug 19 - 11:18 AM

The fightin' Athenas?