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Many commonly (or not so commonly) used words have their origins in characters from Greek or Roman history/mythology. Some stories behind these words named after people are below:
Draconian – excessively harsh laws
Named after the Greek law maker named Draco, who in 621 BCE passed a number of very strict laws, including the death penalty for minor infringements.
Mercurial – someone with sudden changes in mood or opinion.
Named from Mercury the Roman messenger god, who was changeable in nature.
Narcissistic – having an excessive obsession with one’s own appearance.
From the myth of Narcissus a beautiful hunter who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and fell madly in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away he spent all his time gazing lovingly at his own reflection, losing his will to live and eventually dying.
Martial – relating to war.
Named from Mars, the Roman God of war.
Tantalising – to be tormented by something desirable but unobtainable
From the myth of Tantalus who was handed down an eternal punishment to stand forever in a pool of water, which receded every time he stooped down to drink and with delicious low-hanging fruit just out of his grasp.
Thespian – an actor
From Thespis, said to be the first actor to take to the stage in Ancient Greece.
Erotic – relating to sexual desire
Named from Eros, the Greek god of love.
Mentor – a trusted adviser
From the character Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was Odysseus’s good friend who gave sage advice during his epic voyage.
Panic – uncontrollable fear and anxiety
From the Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice.
This is just a short summary of some of the eponyms I found from Greek and Roman mythology, please leave a comment to share others.
Evariste Galois (1811–32) was an extremely promising French mathematician however a series of strange events and a tragic early death would conspire to obscure his talents for many years.
Born in Bourg-la-Reine near Paris, France in 1811, Evariste’s father was Nicolas-Gabriel Galois, the village
mayor. From the age of twelve Evariste attended the lycée of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but it was a time of great upheaval at the school and many pupils were expelled and the quality of the teaching greatly suffered. Evariste began to tire of his studies, all except for mathematics, for which he developed a precocious talent.
At the age of fifteen, Evariste was already studying the original papers of the celebrated eighteenth -century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He began to focus only on mathematics to the detriment to his other studies and despite working at a very advanced level in maths (he studied Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions which was aimed at professional mathematicians) he twice failed to secure a place at Paris’ prestigious École Polytechnique and much to his bitter disappointment instead went to the more modest École Normale. Here he continued to excel at mathematics and was able to make some very complex leaps of logic, however in his other studies he was unusually weak. His literature examiner remarked of his exam:
‘This is the only student who has answered me poorly, he knows absolutely nothing. I was told that this student has an extraordinary capacity for mathematics. This astonishes me greatly, for, after his examination, I believed him to have but little intelligence.’
At the age of just eighteen Evariste began publishing papers, one on continued fractions made it into Annales de mathématiques but another paper on the solvability of algebraic equations which he submitted to the French Academy of Sciences was lost and never published. Evariste’s disappointments were compounded by the tragic death of his father who, depressed by political infighting, committed suicide. His father’s death deeply affected the young Evariste and understandably caused him to behave somewhat erratically on occasion and become more engaged in political causes.
In 1830 Evariste re-wrote the lost paper he had previously submitted it to the French Academy of Sciences to be considered for the Grand Prix of the Academy in Mathematics. However in a strange quirk of fate his paper was lost once again as he gave it to Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier who took it home but unfortunately died a few weeks later and the paper was never found amongst his things.
Evariste was by now becoming increasingly political and in 1830 he penned a pro-Republican letter which got him expelled from the École Normale and he was twice arrested and once imprisoned for six months for his stridently Republican views.
In 1831 Evariste, demonstrating quite some determination, for a third time re-wrote his piece on the solvability of algebraic equations and again submitted it to the academy. This time it was read but received a negative critique – which modern mathematicians have subsequently suggested was simply because they failed to follow his advanced and original thinking and falsely presumed his theories to be wrong.
On 30th May 1832 twenty-year-old Evariste Galois took part in an ill-advised duel, the reasons for which are murky but some have suggested it was staged to resemble a police ambush, others have indicated that it was over a woman, Mademoiselle Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. What we do know is that the night before the duel Evariste was aware he might not survive and so stayed up all night, feverishly writing out his many mathematical ideas, which he then sent to his friend, Auguste Chevalier.
His theories safely committed to paper, Evariste met his opponent but was shot in the stomach. Hours later a peasant discovered his prone body and he was taken to hospital where he managed to relay some tragic last words to his dear brother, Alfred:
‘Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.’
Galois’s papers were annotated and posthumously published in 1846. These ideas and conjectures were built upon and refined by fellow mathematicians Joseph Liouville and Camille Jordan and have gone on to form the basis of group theory, finally bringing the brilliance of Evariste Galois to light.
For more Famous Last Words see my new book Famous Last Words: An Anthology published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 29 April 2016.
I am very pleased and excited to announce that Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library a book I have been working on with Violet Moller will be out in October 2016!
Here is a blurb on the book:
Which is the smallest book in the Bodleian Library? Who complained when their secret pen name was revealed in the library’s catalogue? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What is the story behind the library’s refusal to lend a book to King Charles I? And, what is fasciculing? The answers to these questions and many more can be found inside this intriguing miscellaneous collection of curious facts and stories about the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
Home to more than 12 million books and a vast array of treasures including the Gutenberg bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-painted watercolours for The Hobbit, Shakespeare’s First Folio and four thirteenth-century copies of Magna Carta, the Bodleian Library is one of the most magnificent libraries in the world with a fascinating history.
Bodleianalia delights in uncovering some of the lesser known facts about Britain’s oldest university library. Through a combination of lists, statistics and bitesize nuggets of information, it reveals many of the quirks of fate, eccentric characters and remarkable events which have contributed to the making of this renowned institution. The perfect book for trivia-lovers and bibliophiles, it also offers readers a behind-the-scenes peek into the complex workings of a modern, world-class library in the twenty-first century.
It was such a pleasure to work on this book and get such fantastic access to the amazing Bodleian Library and the people who work there. Over the past few months I have been trundling back and forth from Cambridge to Oxford (where happily my parents still reside) to visit the Bodleian and meet librarians, book conservators and keepers of the records to research Bodleianalia.
I hope the fruits of my research will make Bodleianalia an interesting read and that readers will share in my fascination with this august library and enjoy a glimpse behind the scenes.
Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library will be published in October 2016 by Bodleian Library Publishing.
The Age of Discovery was fuelled by the dreams of a number of fascinating characters who set sail to find unknown lands, collect new commodities and pursue glory. Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins uses the first-hand accounts from a wide variety of explorers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries to bring to life the wonder of encountering exotic animals, foods and peoples for the first time. The story behind these voyages and the people who made them possible are themselves compelling.
I thought it might be nice to introduce some of the explorers whose vivid accounts of their travels furnished me with a wealth of information for the book.
Meet the explorers
George Barrington (1755–1804) provides the perfect story of redemption. Arrested as a petty pickpocket, Barrington was shipped to Australia on a convict ship, later gaining emancipation and proving himself to be an upright sort of fellow he was made high constable of Parramatta.
Andrew Battel (1565–1614) was an English privateer (some may say pirate) who was kidnapped by the Portuguese in 1590 and taken into the interior of Africa where he spent many years under the control of his Portuguese masters trading with the natives. When he was released some twenty years later in 1610 he travelled back to his home in Essex. There he recounted the fascinating story of the people, cultures and animals he had encountered to Samuel Purchas, a keen collector and compiler of travelogues, who published Battell’s account which provided the first European description of Angola and the Congo.
Hapless sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Mendez Pinto (c.1509–83) suffered several shipwrecks, was sold into slavery on at least three separate occasions and was attacked by pirates but lived to tell the, at times far-fetched, tale.
John Saris (c.1580–1643) captained the first British ship to land in Japan and secured a trade deal with the Japanese. However on his return to England he disgraced himself by showing off his collection of Japanese Shunga (erotic paintings) in polite society.
Captain William Dampier (1651–1715), was the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times and during his voyages was involved in a wealth of adventures, including getting court martialled for cruelty, becoming involved in piracy and rescuing Andrew Selkirk from an uninhabited island in the South Pacific where he had been marooned alone for over four years (and is thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).
Lionel Wafer (1640–1705): After quarrelling with Captain William Dampier on a journey through South America he was abandoned on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama and went to live with the Cuna Indians. Wafer studied the Indian’s culture and language and became assimilated, taking on their dress and sporting a nose ring. After jilting the Indian chief’s daughter he eventually reunited with Captain Dampier and travelled back to England where he wrote an enthralling account of his travels.
It is interesting to note that many of these men dabbled in criminality, indicating perhaps that to adventure into the unknown at that time an individual needs a certain devil-may-care attitude. However we are greatly in their debt for recording their stories and sharing with us the wonderment of discovering new lands, foods, animals and peoples.
Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic is published on 7 April 2016 by British Library Publishing.
I have been rather busy recently so have not had much time to update my blog, but I thought I would share the latest articles I have written for Mental Floss.
Secondly, the world’s most expensive ingredients.
I am very excited to share the title and cover for my next book with British Library Publishing.
Can you remember seeing a giraffe for the first time? Tasting a pineapple? Touching a cactus? Probably not, because in these modern times everyone is very knowing – knowledge is at our fingertips and it can sometimes feel as if there is nothing new to discover. The awe and excitement from that moment has been lost because these objects and experiences have become ordinary to us.
But if we travel back in time just a few hundred years, before the age of globalisation, people were encountering new foods, animals, plants, peoples and cultures for the first time as overseas trade routes opened up. This new book reflects the wonderment and curiosity of these new experiences. Based on the historical collections of the British Library, it uses extracts from a wide variety of sources to reveal the reactions and thoughts of Europeans as they visited new places, tasted new foods and encountered strange animals, peoples and plants for the first time.
If you follow my Twitter account @nonfictioness you may have noticed much of last year was spent tweeting excerpts from the fascinating books I was using for my research for this project. It has been the most fun book to research and the pictures that the British Library have unearthed to complement the text are just stunning. I look forward to sharing more details and blog posts inspired by my research in the future!
Just recently I was staying with my parents in the family home and was having a nosey through their bookshelves when I came across some rather charming book dedications. These small notes left in book covers lent so much more meaning to the book and provided a wonderful timeline of my parents’ book collection and it got me thinking about my own bookshelves.
My parents’ book collection is extensive and they are rather organised sorts so had ordered their bookshelves in subject groupings. Thus I found myself looking at the ‘religious’ section. Here I found a number of copies of the bible which had been given to my parents in their youth. Reading the fond inscriptions from parents or aunts and uncles to their young charges was quite telling.
For those of faith, I imagine giving a bible must feel like one of the most important gifts to give, and it was lovely to see the inscriptions, which in themselves told a story, even if just to give a date to the gift.
It was interesting to see the gifts of religious books continued from childhood, through adolescence and young adulthood and then stopped. I suspect because my parents were no longer overtly religious and their passions were rather more consumed with politics – campaigning for nuclear disarmament and world peace.
I reflected on my own book collection and realised that I have very few dedications or inscriptions in my books and more the pity. That is not to say that some trace of my life has not been left in my books. When flicking through my books I often find an old train ticket used as a bookmark, a postcard sent from a friend marking a place or a soggy corner where I dropped my book in the bath.
For some reason I have always felt like it was ‘wrong’ or ‘naughty’ to write in books. I have occasionally written a dedication when giving a gift to my husband, because I know he will cherish the book, but when giving books to friends and family I rarely write in them just in case they hate the book and want to give it away.
Likewise I have always resisted writing my kid’s names in the place where it says ‘this book belongs to’ in the mistaken belief that by letting the eldest write their name in the book it would somehow prevent that book from being handed down to their siblings. But now I see how wrong-headed this whole idea is! The whole beauty of a book collection is in seeing who owned the book first, what year it was given and who gave it to you. This is what makes your book collection unique to you.
As a writer I have spent many hours in the rare books room of the British Library delving into old books and one of my favourite pleasures is to find a dedication or inscription which gives a glimpse of the previous owner of that book. Spookier still is when a hair is left trapped in the pages and one wonders if it was from the head of a modern reader, a librarian, bookseller or perhaps even the original book owner themselves.
So it is that we all leave traces in our books in one way or another and it has certainly inspired me to want to start dedicating my books again. I will arm myself with a pen and write my kid’s names in their books, let them have ownership of that which I hold so precious. When I give a book from now on I shall write at least the date given and from whom and, when warranted, I hope I shall be able to pen some heartfelt message as I gift a favourite book to someone I love, not defacing but enhancing the history and value of the book.
Do you write in books? If so what do you write and why? Please leave a comment!
I wasn’t always a Cock*. I grew up as a Starkey but as one does, I fell in love with a Cock (quite literally A. Cock, my husband’s name begins with ‘A’) and decided to get married. We spent many hours discussing what our surname should be. My poor husband had grown up teased and tormented about his name but as his brother had already changed his name and he was the only other son, he had an urge to continue the family name.
I really wanted us and any future children we had to have the same surname but was not keen on committing myself and our children to a future of ridicule. The only solution seemed to be to create new, hybrid name, but would it be Starkey-Cock or Cock-Starkey?
Deciding on a name
We sounded out both names and as my sister suggested tried announcing our names as BBC Reporters (actually she suggested musicians playing Glastonbury but being more journalistic types our ambitions lay elsewhere) and see which sounded the best (or should I say least bad). Thus we decided ‘This is Claire Cock-Starkey, reporting from the White House for BBC news’ sounded infinitely better than the unfortunately descriptive sounding ‘Claire Starkey-Cock, reporting from the White House for BBC News’.
And so it was decided, on our wedding day I signed my new name into being (but due to arcane laws my husband had to go through the kerfuffle of actually changing his name officially through deed poll). We became the only two Cock-Starkeys in the whole world (we have since added three more mini Cock-Starkeys to our clan).
I realised early on that the key to having a silly name is to say it with confidence. People are so scared to say ‘cock’ that when calling my name at the doctors surgery or phoning to sell me insurance they frequently stutter, ‘Is that Mrs uhum *cough* Starkey?’. ‘Yes,’ I reply loudly and clearly ‘Mrs COCK-Starkey’. My husband has been known to be even bolder and state ‘Cock, as in penis’ when spelling out our name.
I had always wanted to be a writer and when I fantasised about writing a novel I began to imagine taking on a pen name, as it seemed rather romantic. But when I got married I was already working as a writer and was about to get my first credit on a book. I didn’t have time to consider if my name would be a help or a hindrance to my writing career but soon rejected the idea of a pen name. I wanted my efforts to be linked to me, the actual real me, not some mysterious invented character.
Why having a silly name is good
And so my full name now exists on nine books, it is indelibly out there in the literary universe, and so here are four reasons why having a silly name is good:
- It is memorable. Sensible, common, dare I say vanilla names are so forgettable. When you read my name you might snigger, you may even get a mental image of a cockerel (or those of a dirty mind may picture a giant phallus), you might wonder where such a name came from, but you won’t forget it.
- It is unique. When you googled my old name there were quite a few Claire Starkeys, a gymnast, a student, a business executive. But there is only one Claire Cock-Starkey and that makes it easy to be top of Google.
- Double-barrelled names make you seem posh. Tru fact.
- People won’t get you confused with anyone else. Case study: David Mitchell. I am a big fan of the Cloud Atlas writer and when I went into a bookshop to ask for his latest tome, the assistant had to ask ‘which David Mitchell, the Cloud Atlas one or the comedian?’ as both had books out at the same time.
The only bad thing I can think of about my name is the fact that it is so long. Sometimes forms aren’t long enough to fit it in, it doesn’t fit neatly on the spine of a book, and when composing a tweet or writing a short author biography it takes up half my word count.
* For those American readers who see nothing rude or funny about a cockerel, in the UK cock is an especially porny slang word for a penis.
Do you have a silly name? I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!