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The Words of the Day
The Unlikely Evolution of Common English

By: Dr. Steven M. Cerutti PhD.

    Below is an excerpt from The Words of the Day, by Dr. Steven M. Cerutti.

Nine Words (And A Fish) You Thought You Knew

Loose Ends

In this chapter I will try to clear up some of the confusion, misconceptions, and general ignorance shared by many people about some of the more common Words of the Day. Most—if not all—will be familiar to you. You will find that you have been using many of them without any real idea either of what the word means, or how it got that way. But not to worry—probably no one has noticed because chances are most everybody else has been doing the same thing!

Latin 101

First, a little technical stuff. Latin is an inflected language—that is, nouns have different endings called “cases” to indicate how words function in a sentence. The “nominative” case is always the subject; the “accusative” case is usually the direct object, the “dative” case the indirect object, etc. English still retains some remnants of this system—though very few. “Who,” for example is “nominative” whereas “whom” is “accusative.” There is also something called the “genitive” case, which shows possession. In English we would say “whose” as the “genitive” of the pronoun “who.” The “genitive” case is also important because in Latin it contains the root of the word, whereas the “nominative” may not.

For example, if you looked up the word for “law” in a Latin dictionary, you would be given the “nominative” and the “genitive” cases: lex, legis. The way you get to the root of a noun in Latin is to go the genitive form and drop off the last vowel and anything after it. The root then would be leg, taken from the genitive. So all our derivatives are built on the root: “legal, “legislature,” etc. The same thing is true for all other words in Latin. Take the Latin word for “night,” nox. If you looked up nox in a Latin dictionary you would find the entry: nox, noctis, “night.” So the root is noct, where we get words like “nocturnal.” The Latin word nox is actually a rip off from the Greek word  νυξ (say: “noo-cks”), whose root, after transliteration, is nyct and it is where we get terms like “nyctophobia” for people who are afraid of the dark.


Just remember: when you look up a noun in a Latin dictionary, you are always given the “nominative” and the “genitive” cases because it is the “genitive” case that contains the root of the word. How did we get this far into the book without having to tackle this? Because usually the nominative and the genitive are so similar that I was able to spare you the gory details. But we’re about to discuss Jupiter again, and the nominative and the genitive of “Jupiter” don’t look anything alike. Always leave it up to old Jupiter to cause trouble!

1) Jovial

Most people know that “jovial” means “happy,” or “joyful,” but they don’t know why. The “genitive” form of the Latin noun Juppiter is Jovis, so boil it down and we get to the root of the name of the King of the Gods as he was known by the Romans: jov.  

So why is Jupiter always “jovial?” Not just because it is the root of the genitive of his name, but because, as we have already discussed, he had this obsession with ravaging young Earth girls (and, as we’ll see, boys), which I suppose beat hanging around Mt. Olympus all day watching “Wide World of Αθλητης.” Also, if you notice above, in Latin, Jupiter is spelled with two “p”s, but in its anglicized form, it is spelled with only one “p”—don’t ask me why.

(Astronomical note: the planet Jupiter is named after the King of the Gods because it is the largest planet in our solar system. Although Jupiter has some twelve moons that circle it, all but four are so small that they barely qualify as “moons,” so we will concern ourselves with these, the four main Jovian moons which were first observed by Galileo in the 16th Century and so are referred to as the “Galilean Moons.” Fittingly enough, they were named after four of the more well-known sexual conquests Jupiter enjoyed down on Earth.)

ganymede: The largest of the Jovian moons, larger even than the planet Mercury, was named Ganymede after a young boy of extreme beauty with whom Jupiter fell madly in love. Taking the form of an Eagle, he swooped down to Earth, snatched him up, and carried him off to Olympus where he made him his personal “cupbearer.” Now I don’t know what, exactly, a “cupbearer” did up there on Mt. Olympus, but I’m sure at some point it involved knee pads!

io: The second largest of the Jovian moons was named after Io. As one version of the story goes, Jupiter saw Io walking near a river and fell madly in love with her. He told her to meet him in the woods at noon. When they hooked-up, he spread a huge dark cloud over them so that his wife, Juno, wouldn’t be able to see what was going on. But Juno, by now used to her husband’s feeble attempts at concealing his extracurricular “amusements,” came down to disperse the cloud and expose the lovers. Acting just in time, Jupiter turned Io into a heifer, hoping to fool his wife.

Now Juno was no fool, but she could play dumb with the best of them, so she compliments her husband on the beautiful heifer he must have found “for her” and so asks if she can have it as a gift.  What could Jupiter do but give it up? She then sent Argus, a character with a hundred eyes, to keep a constant watch over the heifer in case Jupiter tried to sneak back and free Io from her bondage as a cow. Io remained a heifer for many years, but eventually escaped the watchful eyes of Argus and wandered all the way to Egypt. Jupiter felt so bad about all of this that he pleaded with his wife to turn her back into a woman again, which she did on the condition that Jupiter keep his hands off. From then on Io was worshipped as the Egyptian goddess Isis.

europa: The third largest of the Jovian moons was named after Europa. Jupiter saw Europa playing with her friends in a meadow by the sea and fell madly in love with her. This time, he took on the form of a big, white, muscular bull and started to prance around in the meadow over near where the little girls were playing in order to attract their attention. Which, of course, he did. Over they came and he lay down and let them stroke his belly. Then, one by one, he started to give them rides around the meadow. When Europa’s turn came and on she climbed, he bolted straight for the sea where he transported her to the island of Crete. There, under the shade of a Plane tree, they made crazy love. She must have been some piece of ass, because old Jupiter had such a good time that he named an entire continent after her.

callisto: The fourth of the Jovian moons was named after Callisto (whose name in ancient Greek really does translate to τη καλλιςτη—but don’t tell Aphrodite!). Callisto was a follower of Demeter, the virgin goddess, and vowed to remain a virgin for a life of service to the goddess. But Jupiter fell madly in love with her and put an end to all of that nonsense. Having learned from the Io episode, after he was done with Callisto he turned her into a bear so that Juno wouldn’t find out (why a bear is any better than a cow is anybody’s guess). But you can’t fool your wife even if your name is Zeus, so Juno convinced Demeter to shoot the “bear,” on the grounds that Callisto had to be punished for breaking her vow of celibacy. Jupiter felt so bad about all this that he turned Callisto into the constellation Ursa Major. Juno was so pissed off that Callisto had been given this honor, that she persuaded Ocean never to let her touch his waters, so that Callisto would have no rest. She was doomed to circle the pole star without ever setting.

2) Idiot

In ancient Greece, if you wanted to vote, you had to appear in person in a large city center like, say, Athens, and vote there. There were no polling stations or absentee ballots.  So if you were a farmer living out on your spread some five or ten miles from town and you wanted to vote, you first of all had to drop everything you were doing on the farm—and there was always plenty to do down on the farm—and make what was probably a  two to three day round trip journey while you left you wife and children at home alone to fend for themselves.

Travel in the ancient world could be a brutal experience. Remember, this was before there was anything like a police force or a highway patrol, and so there were plenty of people out there just waiting for you to come riding down the road so they could beat you over the head and rob you blind—and that was if you were lucky! And what if you had to spend the night along the way? Motels back then just weren’t what they are today—which still isn’t saying much. The technology of the lock and key had been invented, but far from perfected, so there was a good chance that if you spent the night at an “inn,” you’d wake up to find not only your shoes and clothes and money stolen, but also your horse, or donkey, or mule and whatever  was hitched onto the back of it. A good mule and wagon—let alone a horse—could bring a lot of drachma on the black market. And people didn’t ask too many questions when the price was right.

So many farmers living out in the boonies just figured the heck with it and didn’t bother to risk getting robbed or worse just to drop a pottery shard into an urn with someone’s name on it. Besides, what did he care who was the  ruling Archon in Athens any given year?  Did it really affect him? As a result, a lot of these people just kept to themselves and didn’t get involved in politics simply because it was so impractical—not to mention dangerous—for them to try.

In ancient Greece, a person who kept to himself and out of public life was referred to as an idiotes (ιδιοτης: say “id-ee-oh-tase). The noun derives from the adjective idios (ιδιος: say “id-ee-ohs”) meaning “private,” and the “occupational suffix “–της” (remember αθλητης?), meaning “person who…” Now over time, it began to take on a pejorative meaning because people who did not get involved with public life were seen as “ignorant” or even “simple-minded.” Imagine a person who never picked up a newspaper or watched a single news broadcast, and you can see how the word began to change. To say “He’s an idiot,” was to say that that person didn’t know what was going on.  By the mid 14th century it could mean anything from simply an “uneducated person” to a “feeble-minded fool.”

Plato Was An Idiot?

An interesting note: before it began to take on the pejorative social baggage that it has today, the ancient Greeks often used the word ιδιοτης of a writer who wrote prose as opposed to poetry, since poetry was written to be read aloud and performed in public, but prose, such as the philosophical writings of Plato, were generally intended to be read silently and contemplated in private.

(Historical note: the way you voted in ancient Greece worked like this: you were handed a small piece of broken pottery—called a shard—on which you wrote, or scratched, the name of your candidate, and then dropped the shard into an urn. The Greek word for this kind of a pottery shard was ostrakon (οστρακον: say “oh-strah-con). And because this was the same process that the Greeks used to remove someone from office—or even from society if they felt the person had committed a crime and needed to be exiled—our term “to ostracize” derives from this ancient custom.)

3) Money

Way back in the 5th century B.C., Rome was still little more than just a wide space in the salt road—the pathway that the people living in the mountains followed to get to the salt pans at the mouth of the Tiber—and its economy was based on the tolls these early Romans charged at their bridges so people migrating from the hills to the sea could cross the river. Sometime around in there, the Romans also started setting up little shops and stalls along the road leading up to the bridge, in case someone wanted to buy a spare rib or a hot dog or grab a beer along the way. These migrating people paid in sal the Latin word for salt, hence the term “salary.”

Eventually the Romans established an economy that, like the Greeks before them, was based on three basic metals: bronze, silver, and gold. They developed “coinage” and assigned value based on the weight of the metal in the coin. Obviously bronze coins were worth less than silver coins, which were worth less than gold, and so on. To strike coins you needed a secure place to store and weigh the metals, strike them into individual coins, etc., and so the Romans set up a “mint” in the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill, which had the steepest slopes of the original seven hills of Rome and thus was the most easily defended.

Then, sometime around the turn of the 4th century—approximately 390 B.C.—just as the Romans were getting their shit together, they were suddenly invaded by the Gauls. So the Romans took up a defensive position on the Capitoline hill and the Gauls surrounded it. The siege lasted for a few days until one night the Gauls tried to scale the steep slope of the hill in order to catch the Romans off-guard. Unfortunately for them, they chose the side of the hill where the Temple of Juno stood. What the Gauls didn’t know was that all around the temple the flock of the Sacred Geese of Juno were sleeping, as were most of the Romans. As the first of the Gauls reached the top of the hill they awoke the Sacred Geese who started quacking up a storm. The quacking of the Sacred Geese in turn awoke the Romans who were then easily able to fend off the Gauls from the top of the hill.

As it turned out, the Gauls weren’t all that interested in occupying Rome, they were just curious about these strange people who wore togas and had long beards, and had come down to have a look. So after that little skirmish on the hill they said the heck with it and went back home.

Because the Sacred Geese around Juno’s temple had warned the sleeping Romans of the stealthy approach of the Gauls, they renamed it the Temple of Juno Moneta, her new nickname taken from the verb monere, which means “to warn.” So from then on her temple was known as the Temple of Juno the “Warner.” Because it was also in the Temple of Juno Moneta that the Romans continued to coin their money, the coins that were struck there were referred to as moneta in Latin. This “nickname” is obviously also where we get words associated with money, such as “monetary,” etc.

(Historical note: the early Romans, as the Greeks before them, didn’t shave and were known for their beards. Until Alexander the Great, that is. Alexander had a quarrelsome relationship with his father, Philip II of Macedon, who also wore a beard. Alex and daddy didn’t get along because Philip slept with everyone but the family mule—not that he probably hadn’t tried, as he was also a notorious drunk—which upset Alex’s mother Olympias so much that she started sleeping with snakes in her bed, hoping that Philip would remember where it was and show up one night. He never did. But because Philip was a mean guy, and an even meaner drunk—which he was most of the time, there wasn’t much Alex could do in the rebelliousness of his youth but shave and then go on to conquer the world. Right before leaving to do that, Philip was murdered. Most scholars agree that Alexander had absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever.

As Alexander conquered the world, he had to pay his army and so he struck a lot of coins that bore his face on one side and an image of Zeus on the other. These coins circulated quickly throughout the Mediterranean world and eventually fell into the hands of the Romans, who were so impressed with Alexander’s military conquests that they all wanted to be just like him and the trend of shaving became all the rage. Whether or not Alexander “conquered the world,” one thing is certain: he set a new vogue for the men of ancient Rome that would endure for centuries!)

4) Orgy

Our word “orgy” derives directly from the Greek noun orge (οργη: say “or-gay), which was their word for “anger.” But the ancient Greeks didn’t differentiate between emotions quite the same way we do. They saw any emotion that caused you to loose control of yourself, that caused  you to do something completely beyond the realm of your normal behavior, as a manifestation of οργη. When, for example, you read in the paper about the latest “road rage” incident in which someone otherwise calm and reasonable suddenly turns into a murderous maniac after being cut off by another driver—that would be a good example of how the Greeks understood the word orge. Our word “anger” severely limits the scope of orge. It could be any emotion—“anger,” “passion,” “lust”—that caused you to loose your ability to think clearly.

Many of the Greek gods and goddesses were on one level simply metaphors for these strong, passionate emotions. Zeus obviously represented “power,” whose seductive sway the Greeks were very aware—and wary—of. It was, for example, the aspiration of being king that seduced Oedipus and brought him to his ruinous end. Aphrodite embodied the carnal, sexual passions. Artemis, the opposite. She was a virginal goddess, who represented the power of abstinence which, when taken to extremes, could turn to sanctimony, another no-no. Read Euripdes’ play Hippolytus if you want to see what happens to someone whose disdain for sex causes his downfall. Each one of the gods and goddesses represented a potential orge which, if taken too far, could destroy you. The idea was to “worship” each god and goddess equally, but not to extremes and not to the exclusion of one or another, but treat them all equally. In other words, lead a balanced life.

It’s hardly news that the Greeks were very fond of wine and were very proud of their vintages. But they were also aware of how powerful and dangerous the effects of drinking too much of it could be. The god Bacchus (also known as Dionysus) was the god they invented for this particular orge. His followers were called the Bacchae—a troop of women who followed him around in the woods along with these creatures who were half men and half-goat, whose leader was named Silenus. It was a secret cult. You could be initiated into it only after “spiritual purification” by being allowed to take part in one of their “orgiastic” rituals that involved, first and foremost, the consumption of wine until you had lost control of your senses. And then anything could happen. Usually, it was sexual in nature, but things could also get a little rough. There is a “rough” side to raw, sexual, aggression. A very “physical” aggression.

Today, our word “orgy” simply retains the “group sex” idea for most people, but for the Greeks, the sexual aspect of the cult was only incidental, secondary. It was the loss of control that was “orgiastic” about these sorts of activities. The root org is also where we get our word “orgasm,” which is, literally, a loss of control, isn’t it? Sometimes it happens when—ooops!—you least expect or even want it to.  Sometimes, it just doesn’t “come” at all.

(Etymological note: our expression “to come” meaning to experience orgasm, derives from the Latin verb venire, which means “to come”—primarily in the sense of “arrive”—but still, the root of the word is ven, and it is from this root that the Roman goddess Venus derives her name. Venus was the Roman counterpart of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and like Aphrodite, was a metaphor for the power of raw sexuality. Venereal diseases are sexually transmitted, contracted through the “sexchange” of bodily fluids when you “come.”)

5) Pornography

It was a sad day for all who strive for precision with words when, in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to explain the word “pornography” when concurring in Jacobellis v. Ohio by saying he could not define it: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Justice Stewart obviously should have consulted his Greek lexicon, where he would have found that the word “pornography,” derives from the Greek root porn (from the noun πορνη: say “por-nay”), which was their term for  “prostitute” or “whore” and graph which comes from the Greek verb γραφω (say “grah-foe”), and can mean anything along the lines of “to write,” or “to paint,” or “to draw.”

(Etymological note: some of the most beautiful artifacts to survive from ancient Greece are the black and red figure terra-cotta vases, pots, and cups we have discussed before. Generally, the artist who painted the pot was a different individual than the man who made the pot. Often one or the other—or both upon occasion—would sign the pot. The painter would use this verb—γραφω—when he signed the pot. The man who made the pot, who “threw” the clay upon a wheel turned by a crank-like device either operated by the foot of the maker himself, or by an apprentice, used the verb poieo (ποιεω: say “poi-eh-owe”) which means, literally, “to make.” The noun ποιητης (say “poi-yey-tase”) that derives from this verb is where we get the word “poet,” which means, literally, anyone who makes or creates something. But by the time the Romans got a hold of it and transliterated it into the Latin poeta, it was used primarily as we use it today: of one who creates verse.)

So the definition of “pornography” is the “depiction of a prostitute.” Period. The small seaside town of Pompeii, for example, began as an early Greek settlement and became a resort town for wealthy Romans by the 1st century B.C. Pompeii was destroyed in the year 79 A.D. following the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and is still being excavated today. It is the oldest ongoing archaeological site in the world. In its heyday, at the time of its destruction, it had a population of about 20,000 people, give or take. And even though there are still large parts of the city that have yet to be excavated, to date they have found evidence of 174 houses of prostitution. That’s a pretty large number for such a small town, and there are doubtless others yet to be discovered.

The Latin word for “prostitute” is lupa (which, interestingly, also means “she-wolf”) and the word for a whorehouse is lupinar. When you entered a lupinar, you were presented with a “menu” as it were. This menu was usually painted on the walls, often near the entrance, and showed the various sexual “specialties of the house” that were available, and what each one cost. These pictures were, literally, pornographia, because they showed what sorts of prostitutes plied their trade their, as each usually had his or her own “specialty.” One lupa might specialize in fellatio, another might take it up the ass. The price varied from one type of “service” to the next, and from one lupinar to another, depending upon the quality of the work, so to speak.

(Historical note: unlike our modern society, where prostitution is looked down upon and—with a few exceptions—criminalized, this wasn’t so in the ancient world. And, also unlike today, was not a service offered primarily for by women for men. A woman could also be “serviced” at a lupinar. And many often were. Most a lupinaria featured a “cunnilinguist” for their female clientele. There was apparently one man who was extremely skilled at it and he seemed to work on a “fee lance” type basis as archaeologists have found his name featured in advertisements painted on the walls of several of these establishments. It would seem from the evidence that the Romans considered “cunt lapping” an art that took great skill to master and perform correctly!)

6) Fornication

If the ancient Greeks were known for anything—and what weren’t they known for?—it was for their skill as master architects. They knew how to move stone.  Like the ancient Egyptians, they were famous for their ability to design great monuments out of stone—often quarried and hauled overland for hundreds of miles—carved and erected using a technology that today we would consider little more sophisticated than toothpicks and bobby pins. And yet many of them are still standing today, albeit in one state of ruin or another, as a testament to the enduring effort of man. Why they chose to spend their lives toiling in this way, instead of, say, just going to the beach—and Greece has some beautiful beaches!—we will never know. Like the pyramids of ancient Egypt, the temples of ancient Greece stand like silent sentinels to the legacy of the persistence and endurance of human industry.

But for all that they achieved with chisel and mallet, the Greeks were forever locked into what is known as “post and lintel” architecture. That is, erect a column, erect a second one next to it, and connect them by lowering a rectangular block of stone across the space between them. Simply repeat this process over and over and you have the beginnings of your standard Greek temple. Just think of it as framing a house only using marble instead of maple.

The “post and lintel” technique was fine for your traditional Greek style temple—such as the Parthenon, which still crowns the summit of the Acropolis in Athens and represents perhaps the pinnacle of Greek architectural genius. It is, along with the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Colosseum and the Sphinx that guards the pyramids on the Giza plateau along the bank of the Nile, arguably one of the most universally recognizable man-made structures in the world.

At first, the Romans copied the Greek style of “post the lintel” architecture. Many of the early temples in the Roman forum, such as the Temple of Saturn and the Temple of Castor—two of the oldest temples in Rome dating back to the turn of the 5th century B.C.—were built using the post and lintel design. The only problem with the post and lintel style is that no matter how close you arrange your columns—no matter now narrow the intercolumniation, no matter how thick and sturdy the lintel that spans it—you can only put so much stress on that lintel before it will crack.

This inherent design flaw prevented both the Greeks and the early Romans from building much higher than a first—or in some limited cases a small, lightweight second story—not much more than a terrace really—simply because the post and lintel design could not bear the weight of any substantial  superstructure. It was the Romans who developed the solution to this problem, around 100 B.C.: the arch. They had actually been already using the arch for over a century, but for a different purpose.

Aqueducts And Arches

For most of its life a Roman aqueduct is simply a pipe buried underground that carries water from the Apennine mountains to Rome and other urban centers.  It is only when the pipe gets close to its destination that it begins to rise out of the ground. The reason for this is simple physics. By the time a great volume of water has traveled some three or four hundred kilometers downhill, it has built up a great amount of velocity that must be dissipated somehow, otherwise the water pressure would be uncontrollable and impossible harness. The easiest way to alleviate the pressure was by using the natural force of gravity—by reversing the slope that carried the water downhill and created all the pressure in the first place.

This is where the arch becomes instrumental. By using the arch to raise the pipe out of the ground and then bumping up the height of each arch by small increments, the Romans could carry the water into the city on a row of arches marching in advancing height to slow the flow of the water down. In this way Roman engineers created and maintained a water pressure that was controllable so that by the time it reached its destination it could be put to practical use.

(Historical note: because the Romans used lead pipes, many people labor under the misconception that by consuming the water carried by these lead pipes the Roman populace was exposed to lead poisoning, which led to madness and precipitated the fall of the Roman empire, because everyone went nuts from drinking the water. This is simple nonsense. The Apennine mountains, which the Romans tapped for most of their water supply, are of limestone composition. Limestone is a very porous type of sedentary stone, and therefore the water that flows out of them contains a high concentration of lime that would quickly glaze the interior of the pipes, providing a natural protective veneer shielding the water against the toxic effects of the lead.)

Amphitheatres And Arches

But constructing an arch to carry the weight of a pipe full of water was one thing. Its purpose was to elevate and cover distance—not necessarily to support a lot of weight. Were it not for the arch, engineering feats such as the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum, not to mention practically every other theatre the Romans built would have been possible. The Roman were running water over arches for over a hundred years before it dawned on them that the arch was capable of much, much more. 


It would not be until the turn of the first century before Christ that—at a remote site some fifty kilometers south of Rome on the Via Appia, a town by the sea called Terracina—that Roman engineers realized the true versatility of the arch and its importance as a structural device. The way the arch works—the reason it can support such loads—is that the voussoirs (wedge shaped blocks at the curve of the shoulders of the arch) were held in place by the keystone—also wedge-shaped—so that the thrust of any weight placed on top of it would be transferred equally through the shoulders of the arch and down each side to be absorbed by the foundation. 

While Romans were exploring the possibilities of the arch they stumbled upon something else—that if they mixed a little sand, gravel, water, and some Pozzuoli volcanic ash together it would harden into something called concrete. And with a little more time and refinement of the process they eventually could get their concrete to set underwater! By constructing wooden frames in the shape of arches and pouring concrete over top of them they could manufacture a substructure of arches that could carry a superstructure as high as their imaginations allowed them to—and do it very quickly as well.

It was the design of the arch, along with the invention of concrete that enabled the Romans to build on a scale not even dreamed of by the Greeks. Ironically, at Terracina, the Romans used the marriage of these two newfound technologies in order to construct a level platform on the top of a mountain in order to build a traditional post and lintel style temple on top of it. 

Caesar The Architect

It wouldn’t be until about fifty years later that none other than Julius Caesar recognized the arch for something more than simply an architectural apparatus that enabled the Romans to build sturdy foundations. Aside from being a brilliant military commander, Caesar was a man of true vision and saw the aesthetic beauty in the simplicity of its shape, and designed a building on a grand scale that—instead of hiding the arches under the building as a support system—featured them by stacking three tiers of open arches on top of the other. Once completed, the building would end up accommodating 150,000 people. That building was the  Circus Maximus—rightly named as the greatest arena for chariot racing in the entire ancient world. Charioteers would travel from as far away as Egypt and Syria, just for the experience of competing there.

Chariot racing in the valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills in Rome dates back at least to the 7th century B.C. Probably spectators sat on the surrounding hills, or erected make-shift wooden bleachers to watch the teams of four-horse chariots—called quadrigae—race around the valley.

But it was Julius Caesar who transformed the place from a field surrounded by wooden bleachers on the hillsides encircling the valley, to a monumental stone structure that was 700 meters long, three tiers high, and could seat up to 150,000 spectators. And he did it all using the arch and concrete.

Going “Arching”

Now the Romans loved Caesar for building it—especially since he funded for the whole project personally from the “killing” he was making in Gaul.

Watching a chariot race was about as much fun as you could have in a city like Rome—twelve teams of four horse chariots charging through the dust, lap after lap, crashing into each other, bodies flying everywhere. But chariot racing didn’t go on every day, but rather only on festivals. And the Circus Maximus, due to the nature of its construction with all those open, exposed archways, invited people to move in and set up shops in the archways, often with the shopkeeper living above his shop. It wasn’t long before the place became a virtual outdoor mall. One of the most popular commodities sold in these archways was sex, and some scholars estimate that one out of every three to five archway shops was a house of prostitution, or was home to some other lewd activity to be had for a price. This was probably the reason why so many of Rome’s fires began in the vicinity of the Circus Maximus thanks to some old whore knocking over a lamp and setting her straw mattress on fire.

So if you were in the market for that kind of thing, the arches of the Circus Maximus was where you went. Well, the Latin word for arch is fornix, and the root is fornic. So if you’re going to go “fornicate” literally you are going to go “arching,” and if that was the case, chances were you were looking for one thing and it wasn’t a head of lettuce!

7) Sinister

The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005) lists as the primary meaning of the word “sinister”—and I’m quoting here—“giving the impression that something harmful or evil is happening or will happen, wicked or criminal.” It isn’t until you get to the second definition that the authors of the dictionary get around to telling you what the word actually means. And on top of that, they call it an “attributive meaning” as if it were a meaning that the word didn’t originally posses, but somehow “acquired” or “took on” over time. But what can you expect from a dictionary, the root of which, dict, comes from the Latin verb dicere which means “to say” or “to speak.” So when you look in a dictionary, don’t necessarily expect to find what a word actually means, just expect to find recorded there how people use it in their “diction”—that is, how they use it in everyday conversation. And if you’ve ever listened to people talk, it can get scary to hear the way they use some of the words that come out of their mouths. So you don’t go to a dictionary to find out what words mean, you go to a dictionary to find out how people use them while striking up a conversation on a bus or waiting for the elevator to reach their floor. Hey, they don’t call it “small talk” for nothing!

The word “sinister” comes into English directly from the Latin adjective sinister which means “left-handed” or of anything “occurring on the left.” As opposed to the adjective dexter, which means “right handed” or anything “occurring on the right.” Now the idea of left-handed people being considered unlucky or ill-omened is no longer a modern concept, but it was in antiquity and that particular connotation dates back to the earliest of the ancient Roman days. The reason for this is that the ancient Romans—like the Greeks before them—were extremely superstitious creatures. They didn’t so much as drink their morning orange juice without taking omens first, or interpreting some naturally occurring phenomenon as an omen. The gods spoke in mysterious ways: sometimes you had to call them, sometimes they called you. Either way, you checked with them before you did just about anything.

Liver Spots

The Romans had many ways of reading the gods’ minds. Sometimes they would examine the liver of a sacrificial animal and look for spots. Spots were a bad omen. A little advice: if you’re buying meat at the local grocery stores and you see spots on the meat—that’s a bad omen. Go with the fish instead.

Bird Watching

Another way the Romans took omens was a process called augury—or bird watching. Augury was performed by —you guess it!—Augurs. An Augur was a special kind of priest who was skilled in the ways of our winged friends and who knew how to interpret bird signs. The way it worked was the Augur took his magic stick (called a lituus) and inscribed a big square box in the dirt on the ground, roughly five feet square. Then he quartered the box into four equal sections and in one of the boxes on the right side he wrote the word “yes” and in another on the same side he wrote “definitely” and then on the left side, in one box he wrote “no” and in the other he wrote “don’t even think of parking here!” The he would cross-legged on the intersection of all four boxes, in the center of the big box, and gazed skyward and in his imagination project the outlines of the box up into the sky. Here he would sit and wait and watch until a bird flew through one of the boxes, which would give him his answer. As you can see, this was a system that could, and often did, lead to extreme corruption and manipulation.

The Left-Handed Legion

So this was how the Latin term sinister came to be “bad, or “unlucky,” or “ill-omened.” The Romans were so superstitious about the left side of life that even left-handed people were shunned. In the Roman army, for example, they took all the left handed soldiers and placed them into a single legion and sent that legion as far away from Rome as possible—all the way to the northernmost boundary of the empire: Hadrian’s wall in Scotland. And to this day, if you go to visit the wall, the locals will tell you that the ghosts of the Left-handed Legion still haunt the Scottish moors around the ruin of Hadrian’s wall.

8) Testicle

You’re probably wondering why we didn’t deal with this word when we “dissected” the etymology of the human body earlier. But the word has such a bizarre story to tell, that I didn’t want it to “fall through the crack” as it were.

The word “testicle” is made up of the Latin noun testis, which means “witness” as in someone who is called into court to give testimony in a trial. Once we extract the root test,  then all we have to do is add the diminutive suffix “-cle” onto it. So literally, a “testicle” is a “little witness.” So how does this technically legal term come to be used for a particular part of a man’s genitalia. Well, there are two prevailing theories on this, and you’ll find as many people who cling to the first as to the second. 

Theory #1

In ancient Rome, when called to testify at a trial, a witness had to swear an oath that he would tell the truth—similar to our practice today. But because the ancient Romans didn’t have a bible—or any document like it—on which a witness would have to place his hand while he swore his oath dicere veritatem,  omnen vertitatem, et nihil sed vertitatem, it was custom that the witness grab his balls and swear by them. If you think about it, this was a very effective way of ensuring that someone would tell the veritas and only the veritas, because if it were found out that he hadn’t, he stood the chance of losing something quite near and dear to him!

Theory #2

In ancient Rome, since a man’s household slaves enjoyed an intimate relationship with their masters—often making them privy to their comings and goings, when, and with whom—overhearing little things muttered in dark corners meant for ears others than their own—the testimony of a slave could be very powerful stuff in the hands of a wily prosecutor. But because many slaves were also quite loyal to their masters, or might be reluctant to testify against them in open court out of fear of repercussions should his master not be convicted, it was Roman law that a slave could only testify against his master—or any member of the household in which he worked, for that matter—if that testimony was extracted under physical torture. This is quite the opposite of the way our legal system works today. Today, any statement given under any force of duress, be it physical or otherwise, is almost always ruled inadmissible without exception. Not so for the Romans, at least when it came to the testimony of slaves. 

The way it worked was the slave was called in and strapped down to a chair. And then a court official—usually some big, brawny, mean-faced brute with large muscular hands—would then stand next to the witness with one hand under the slave’s tunic gripping the poor fellows nuts and beginning to apply pressure as the questioning began. Then, as the interrogation proceeded, if it was the opinion of the court members that the slave was not forthcoming to their satisfaction, they would give the nod to man with his “hand on the switch” so to speak, and he would turn up the pressure. A lot of testimony probably went much like this:

       Slave: “…I think I heard him say…he wanted to learn to please her…”


       Slave “..I mean I think I heard him say he wanted to murder Caesar!”

There is some truth to the old adage—for which this might very well be the origin: when you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow!

9) The “F” Word

If there are two theories on the history of “testicle,” there probably more than you can count for the etymology of “fuck.” Frankly, we’re all just guessing.

Grammatically, “fuck” can be anything. It can be a noun (“That was one screaming fuck I got last night!”); or a verb (“I fucked the shit out of that bitch all night long!”); it can be an adjective (“She says he’s a virtual fucking machine!”); it can be an adverb (“That’s one fucking bad haircut you got today at the mall.);  it needn’t even have sexual connotation (“That’s a lot of fucking crap you’ve got there!”); it can mean something good (“I really got fucked last night!”); or something bad (“I really got fucked last night!”); it makes for a great interjection (“Fuck! I can’t find my keys!) as well as an interruption (“Outfuckingrageous!” or “I underfuckingestimated what an ass-hole you can be!”). All this tells us nothing about the etymology of the word; it is just a commentary on the impressive range of usages the word has acquired over time. To cover all the theories on the history of this word would be to write its own book, which I’m sure has been done, and probably done badly. It would be hard—if even possible—to do it well.

The Dictionary of American Slang (1960) gives as the primary meaning of the word…“[taboo] To Cheat, trick, take advantage of, deceive, or treat someone unfairly.” It goes on to offer this as an explanation of the relationships between fraud and sex: “All slang meanings of ‘fuck’ and all ‘fuck’ expressions, of course, derive consciously or unconsciously from the old and standard but taboo ‘fuck’ = sexual intercourse. All slang meanings and expressions were widely used in W.W. II military units, became part of the slang vocabulary of many veterans, and spread from them to students and friends. This coupling with the lessening of moral standards and taboos, including linguistic taboos, during and after the war, has contributed to…” blah, blah, blah.

From the New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd Edition (2005) we learn that “fuck” came into the English language by slipping through the Indo-European back door and surfacing as the Germanic word fuk. It goes on to explain that the word took its derivation from the classical Latin root pug, from the verb pugnare, which means “to fight”—generally with one’s fists, scrapping it out in the dirt, as it were (which can’t help but put one in mind of the old Lennon/McCartney song Why Don’t We Do It in the Road). This is an interesting theory and we might give it some (though cautious) credence. At the very least they are correct in that the root of the word “fuck” is classical, but it’s not Latin, nor pugnacious in any way.

The simple truth is that “fuck”—obviously one of the oldest words in the language—if not the world—dates back to nearly the birth of writing, back when our ancestors were barely up on their feet, still hunting and gathering. It comes from the Greek verb φυω (say: “foo-owe”) and its root is phu. It’s an agricultural term. It means, literally, to plant seeds—what a farmer does—dropping seeds into a furrow of soil. When adopted by the Romans, its Latin root changed from phu to fu and the noun fututio soon became part of Roman vernacular.

The “Old In Out”

Fututio is an example of what linguists refer to as a “frequentative.” That is, a word that describes repeated action—which is the nature of “fucking”— if you’re doing it right!  It takes often considerable repetition to get those seeds to spurt out. Soon the Roman elegiac poets got a hold of it at a time when erotic love poetry was all the rage in Rome and fututio became a metaphor for planting a particular kind of “seed” in a specific kind of “furrow.” This literary debauchery—what the American Dictionary of Slang calls “linguistic tabooism”— began with Catullus and then was taken up by his successors, Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid. Among the many books of poetry that Ovid wrote was one called the Ars Amatoria or the “Art of Love,” a poem whose main these is how to pick up chicks in ancient Rome. It’s really a scream, but it, and others like it that came from Ovid’s stylus, were considered too vulgar and ultimately offensive to the emperor Augustus (who was certainly not one to preach about promiscuity given his own reputation!), so he had poor Ovid—who at the time was already in his mid fifties—exiled to an army camp on the southern Steppes of Russia by the shores of the Black Sea, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Fish Story

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in traffic or stopped at a red light and noticed that attached somewhere on the rear of the car in front of you is a small chrome fish—more the outline of a fish, quite simple, about six inches long—you probably realize that you know something about the people who own that car: they’re Christians. Because the fish is one of the universal symbols for Jesus. Not as popular as the cross—hell no, not by a long shot. But if you live in The South—which, for my sins, I happen to—then you see plenty of them. Fish, I mean. On bumpers, that is. Sometimes the word “Jesus” appears inside the little oval shaped body of the fish; sometimes, there is simply a little cross near the front where the eye would be; often,  it’s left blank. A chrome-plated fish, six inches long,  stuck  onto the back of your car tells the world you’ve found Jesus—or maybe by putting the symbol on the back of your car, you’re making it easier for Jesus to find you. Either way, one question remains: why a fish? The cross is a no-brainer, but a fish? We know it was used as a secret symbol by the Christians so that they could identify each other in public, but still: why a fish? There are three theories on this question. Whenever I ask my class about this, I always get some version of the first two—both of which are incorrect.

Theory  #1

Somewhere in the Bible there is the account of Jesus feeding the multitudes with  two fish and a few loaves of bread—or was it a few fish and two loaves of bread? Either way, it went down as one of his “miracles” because basically a “multitude” is a hell of a lot of people, and there just was not very much food to go around—besides, who knew Jesus was a Sushi chef on top of everything else? But somehow Jesus made everyone happy.  It sort of puts one in mind of Woodstock, about day three, after the concert had run too long and all the acid dealers were running out of purple haze and blotter tabs, but somehow, everyone managed to cop a buzz. It was a miracle, really. Maybe it was because Jesus was there as well—certainly plenty of people claim to have seen him there!

Theory #2

Let’s not forget that most of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. Out there on the sea of Galilee one day they were having a hard time getting a nibble until Jesus walked on out there—let me say that again, walked on out there—you know, what you do when you go fishing on the sea of Galilee without a boat—and told them to cast their nets “over there.” So they did, and hauled in more fish than they could even carry back. No fools, they realized this guy knew his fishing and maybe they could learn something from him. Hence the term “disciple,” whose root, disc comes from the Latin verb discere, which means “to teach.” But when you add the diminutive suffix “–cle” onto it, you form the noun “disciple” which means “student.” So the disciples were following Jesus around because they wanted to be better fishermen—asking him questions about bait and nets and tackle and lures—until he told them, “Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” This wasn’t exactly what they had in mind, but what the hell, Jesus had this hot babe with him named Mary and word was for a few sheckles she’d put out. 

Theory #3

It’s actually quite simple. The Greek word for fish is ιχθυς (say “ick-thuse”). And the letters of the word are an acronym for Jesus’ name and title:

                   ι  χ  θ  υ  ς

               η ρ  ε  ι   ω

               σ  ι  ο  ο  τ

               υ  σ  υ  ς  η

               ς  τ          ρ



ιησυς = Jesus

χριστος = Christ

θεου = (of) God

υιος = (the) son

σωτηρ = (the) savior

“Jesus Christ, son of God, the Savior”

Some people ask why they needed the symbol of the fish in the first place. Wasn’t the cross enough? That’s a problematic issue because the earliest (we think) recorded use of the cross as a religious icon representing Christianity dates to (we think) the 4th century. But cross or no cross, why did the Christians need a “secret symbol” at all? Simple: survival. 

The Fire of 64 A.D.

It was during the reign of Nero, in 64 A.D., that one of the worst fires in Rome’s history occurred. Like most fires it began in the vicinity of the Circus Maximus, probably because some old whore knocked over a lamp in her  archway brothel while getting the high hard one from some Centurion out on the town and looking to blow a few denarii (a denarius was a silver coin and the currency favored by the military for paying their soldiers) on a good time. It lasted for nine days (the fire, that is) and thanks to the prevailing winds it spread quickly north, toward the heart of the old city, consuming much of the Imperial Palace on the Palatine Hill as well as many of the buildings and temples of the old Roman Forum in the valley just beyond that, not to mention damaging much of the architecture of grand Imperial Fora nearby.

Nero, My Hero

Many stories have circulated about Nero and that fire. One was that Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned (actually it would have been a cithara or lyre, as the violin had yet to be invented); another was that while viewing the conflagration from the terrace of the Imperial Palace he recited the passage from the second book of the Aeneid in which Vergil describes the burning of Troy. This last story is especially hard to believe because Nero’s Palace was right in the path of the fire and knowing Nero he would have been the first one out the fire exit! There were even rumors that it had been Nero himself who started the fire in order to clear ground for the building of a new imperial residence he had been planning, the famous Domus Aurea, or “Golden House.”

The truth is that Nero was not even in Rome at the time of the fire, and although he acted quickly in providing emergency shelters for the homeless, and men and resources for the reconstructive efforts, his already waning popularity took a nose dive. Despite the fact that Nero was hundreds of kilometers from Rome when the fire broke out, the inescapable fact of the matter was that it happened on his watch and the denarius stopped with him. What Nero needed was a scapegoat, and he needed one badly—and quickly—so he launched an “official inquiry” into the cause the of the fire—an obvious sham whose only purpose was to finger somebody—anybody—to feed to the mob, thereby taking the “heat” off himself.

He ended up blaming a small, obscure religious cult from the eastern province of Judea whose followers worshiped a man who had gone by the name of  Christ. It was a shrewd move on Nero’s part. Rome had always had trouble with the province of Judea—Romans, being polytheists, despised the monotheistic Jews, who in turn returned the favor—so the Roman Mob was quick to embrace the Christiani as those who had put their beloved city to the torch. Nero dispatched one of his most trusted generals, Vespasian (who would later go on to succeed him as emperor), to sack Jerusalem.

This marked the beginning of what would become the famous Roman persecution of the Christians, a systematic, methodical slaughter that was as relentless as it was abominable, and that, once set in motion, would not cease for several centuries. Before the fire, the presence of Christians in Rome was at least tolerated by the Romans enough so that they could perform their devotions openly. In fact, by the first century A.D., Rome was home to dozens of eastern cults, the Christiani simply one of the pack. But after Nero’s very public condemnation the Christians were forced underground—literally—causing them to build the famous catacombs where they could practice their devotions and rituals in relative safety, as well as hide out whenever they heard the  Praetorian Guard trampling by on their well-groomed steeds in search of fresh lion fodder.

They had good reason to hide, the Christians did, for if caught, terrible fates awaited them. One of Nero’s favorite forms of torture and execution was to crucify Christians at major intersections throughout the city and then at night set them on fire to amuse drunken Roman aristocrats while helping them find their way through the dark city streets as they caroused from party to party. Thousands were also martyred in the Circus Maximus as well, many more there, in fact, than ever were in the Colosseum, once it was built some fifty years later. A fact not widely known.

Nero did not confine his cruelty to the Christians. Some of Nero’s greatest hits include the murder of his mother, Agrippina, whom he had his freedman Anicetus club to death in her home after a botched attempt at doing the “wet work” himself—literally. One spring day Nero planned a little picnic for himself and his mother on his private yacht. The plan was a complicated little venture involving a false bottom and a tent with roof beams that should have collapsed but didn’t. Even when you’re emperor you can’t expect to have everything go your way all of the time.  

Still, tough as she was (she reportedly swam over a mile to shore following the fiasco on the yacht) Agrippina simply had to go as she had been interfering with Nero’s plans to divorce his first wife, Octavia, in order to marry his mistress, Poppaea Sabina. With his mother finally out of the picture, love found a way and he married Poppaea in the year 63, only to murder her two years later by kicking her to death while she was five months pregnant with their second child. You could write a book about the black reign of Nero (that happens to be a pun, by the way, but it only works in Italian), and many have, beginning with the Roman biographer Suetonius, who was born in the year 70 A.D., two years after Nero committed suicide on 9 June, 68 A.D. He reigned for only fourteen years—but hey, it was fun while it lasted.

So back to the Christians and our fish. Naturally, they avoided public gatherings in large groups, and were often terrified of even showing their faces on the open street for fear of being found out. So in order to identify themselves to each other in public, one Christian would draw half of the outline of the symbol of a fish in the dirt with the edge of his sandal, and if the man next to him, completed the image, then they knew they were among friends. It was sort of their version of  a “secret handshake” as it were.





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