From Cyprus, we head back to the European mainland for a quick sight-seeing tour of Greece – a destination that perhaps has more to offer us than any other.
The number of Greek – or, as is more often the case, Ancient Greek – locations that crop up in the etymologies of words in the dictionary is remarkable. Some of these are staggeringly familiar. Chestnuts, for instance, are literally ‘Castanean nuts’, perhaps first cultivated in the town of Castana in Thessaly, while currants take their name from the fact that they were sold in Britain originally as ‘raisins of Corinth’ in the fourteenth century.
Where is Abdera, Greece? – Abdera, Greece Map – Abdera, Greece Map Download Free Photo Gallery
If you’ve ever described something as spartan, or someone as laconic, then you’ve namechecked the Ancient Greek city state of Sparta (whose people were known for their frugality and bravery) and its surrounding region of Laconia (whose populace were reportedly known for their terse ‘laconic’ speech).
The Olympic marathon famously takes its name from the battle fought between the Greeks and Persians at Marathon in 490 bce -while its 26.2-mile length is supposedly the distance the messenger Pheidippides had to run to bring news of the Greeks’ victory to
Athens. Marathon itself was a city in Ancient Attica, the region of central Greece from which we have taken the word attic: classical Attic architecture was characterised by small decorative columns or walls above the main facades of buildings, but eventually the word came to refer to any space enclosed by the walls above the main structure of a building, and ultimately the space enclosed by its roof.
At the less familiar end of this Ancient Greek scale are a host of ever more obscure words such as lacedemonian, a synonym for ‘spartan’ derived from the province of Lacedaemon in Laconia, and boeotian, a sixteenth-century adjective meaning ‘stupid’ or ‘dull’, in allusion to the proverbial stupidity of the people of Boeotia in central Greece. Actium, the name of a town and promontory on Greece’s west coast, can be used as a byword for any decisive, crushing defeat, as it was here that the Roman Empire trounced Marc Antony and Cleopatra in a fierce naval battle in 31 bce.
The name of another famous Greek battle, Thermopylae, has become a popular reference to any heroic, last-ditch defence or attempt to rout an opposing force. The name of a narrow pass in rural Thessaly, it was at Thermopylae that a force of three hundred Spartans famously stood off the entire Persian Army in 480 bce.
Something described as Arcadian is ideally and idyllically rural, or utterly peaceful and utopian, a reference to the peaceful mountainous region of Arcadia in central Greece. The adjectives Parnassian, Pierian and Heliconian can all be used to mean ‘poetic’ or ‘artistic’, a reference to the Muses of Greek legend supposedly living atop Mount Parnassus in Pieria, a region of northern Greece, and holding the springs on Mount Helicon in sacred regard. The name of Mount Pelion in Thessaly can be used as a byword for any challenging or insurmountable difficulty; when paired up with nearby Mount Ossa, the expression to pile Pelion upon Ossa is to make the great even greater – or to make the already difficult even more difficult.
Elsewhere in Greece, in the far northeast corner, lies the long-ruined Thracian city of Abdera. Among its most noted citizens was a fifth-century-BCE philosopher and mathematician named Democritus. Given that he’s believed to have lived well into his nineties (if not past a hundred), we can presume that he had quite the legacy to leave behind, but sadly, only the odd fragment of Democritus’s life’s work remains. Nevertheless, from stories and anecdotes retold and referenced long after his death, we know that a great deal of Democritus’s philosophical writings were focused on the value of cheerfulness and optimism, and in his teaching he stressed the importance of always looking on the comic side of life.
Unfortunately, that particular world view has its drawbacks, and it’s safe to say that it didn’t go down too well with Democritus’s more stoic contemporaries, among whom he soon gained a reputation for laughing incessantly, inanely, or entirely out of context. That reputation was ultimately passed on to all of Democritus’s followers, and then to his fellow citizens of Abdera, so that eventually the adjective Abderian came to mean ‘foolish’, ‘vacuous’, or ‘empty-headed’. Abderian laughter is the laughter of someone who will laugh at anything:
For my own part, I always tremble when I hear a story beginning ‘What d’ye think?’ – ‘I’ll tell you what,’ – and such like useless exordiums. These are certain indications of a very empty head There are some of the Insipids who, being a very merry set of empty animals, instead of using these articulate expletives, supply the place of sense with Abderian laughter; performing at once the equally disagreeable parts of troublesome, impertinent orators, and noisy auditors, bestowing upon themselves the applause which their insensible hearers omit giving them.
With a smile on our faces, we cross the Greek border to the north, heading into the fourth of the four Black Sea nations on our list.