Some etymologists believe the humble sardine takes its name from the Italian island of Sardinia. The Ancient Greeks knew Sardinia as Sardo, and it’s possible that the fish were once caught in such impressive numbers off the Sardinian coast that the island gave the fish their Greek name, sardinos. It’s just a theory, however, and a fairly fishy one at that: it’s questionable whether or not the Greeks would have had the maritime capabilities to catch fish as far afield as Sardinia at around the time the word first appeared in print in the fourth century bce.
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The Greeks certainly knew about Sardinia, however, as they have given us the word sardonic, meaning ‘sarcastic’ or ‘false’. To the Greeks, sardonic laughter was known as sardonios gelos, or literally ‘Sardinian laughter’; the Greeks believed that eating a toxic Sardinian plant known as sardonion caused people to make grotesque facial convulsions that looked like mocking laughter before they died. And that’s no joke.
But Sardinia isn’t the only Mediterranean island name-checked in the dictionary. Majolica pottery takes its name from the island of Majorca, while the island’s capital, Mahon, provides one of a number of possible explanations for the origin of mayonnaise. A mellinder is a beautifully named seventeenth-century sweet pastry, thought to conflate the Latin words for ‘honey’, mel, and ‘Malta’, Melita (via an
Old French word, melite, that meant ‘promised land’ or ‘land of plenty’).
Something that is hyblaean is equally honeyed or mellifluous, an allusion to the fine-quality honey made in the hills around the ancient city of Hybla, on Sicily. Marsala wine takes its name from the Sicilian seaport of Marsala, from where it was first exported to England in any great quantity in the eighteenth century. And off the coast of Sicily is a vast whirlpool, known in ancient times as Charybdis. Paired up with the name of a sea monster, Scylla, said to dwell in the nearby Straits of Messina, to be between Scylla and Charybdis is to be in a position where one has to choose between two equally unpleasant alternatives.
Cyprus, at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean, six hundred miles south of Istanbul, has a long history, much intertwined with that of nearby Greece and Asia Minor. The Cypriot city of Paphos on the island’s southwest coast, for instance, is said to have been the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and procreation, and it’s from there that the English language picked up the sixteenth-century adjective paphian, meaning ‘sexual’ or ‘desirous’. A paphian shot is one of Cupid’s arrows. The noun paphian is a fairly subtle euphemism for a prostitute.
But Cyprus has a lot more to offer the dictionary than just words to do with love, romance and, er, prostitution.
To the Romans, Cyprus was well known for its copper mines, and the metal obtained from these mines became known as aes cyprium, or the ‘metal of Cyprus’. The Latin cyprium morphed over time into cuprum, and it’s from there that the English language eventually picked up the word copper sometime around the early eleventh century.f So not only do we owe one of our most everyday of words to Cyprus, but there’s a good chance you can thank the island for the contents of your back pocket, or what you might find hidden down the back of your sofa.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus is forced to sail the straits between Scylla and Charybdis; he opts to pass more closely by Scylla, and risk losing only one or two sailors to the monster, rather than risk the entire ship to Charybdis.
While cyprium eventually morphed into copper, the Latin word aes eventually inspired our word ore. Ironically, just as we consider copper coins to be loose change or cash, the Latin word aes could also be used to mean ‘money’ or ‘cash’.
The Latin cuprum is also the origin of the somewhat counter-intuitive chemical symbol for copper, Cu.