αγορίνα I: The patriarchally safe meanings

By: | Post date: 2017-11-13 | Comments: 7 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

I was asked to weigh in a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, on the provenance of the contemporary Greek slang word αγορίνα. It’s a term I myself, being in the diaspora, had not heard before this year, and I was suitably taken aback when I did first hear it. (“She’s calling me a female boy? Was it something I said?”)

The complications of the word are fascinating enough to deserve a post here. In fact, they’ll get two.

The morphology of the word are obvious enough. αγόρι “boy” (ultimately from Ancient Greek άωρος “unripe, untimely”) + feminine suffix -ίνα.

The semantics of the word are as complicated as you would expect from a word that switches the gender of “boy” to feminine.

The added frisson to the complicatedness of the semantics is, that your likely guess of what the word means is informed by the contemporary Zeitgeist; and your guess is mostly wrong—but wrong in interesting ways.

A feminine suffix on “boy” can have, at least, four interpretations:

  1. A boy who acts/is perceived as a girl
  2. A girl who acts/is perceived as a boy
  3. A boy who acts/is perceived as a boy—where the feminine suffix is used for a secondary meaning, and does not directly refer to gender
  4. A girl who acts/is perceived as a girl, defined as the female counterpart to a boy

With the increased visibility of transgender people and transgender issues, #1 would likely be the default interpretation for people in the modern West; cf. ladyboy in English. But αγορίνα was coined in a different social environment; one in which (a) transgender people were less visible; (b) transgender identity was much more nebulous, and in fact conflated routinely with both gay identity and cross-dressing identity.

As it turns out, the Greek word means #2, “tomboy”, in a rural context, and #3, “darling boy”, where the feminine suffix was used originally as an expression of endearment by mothers, and apparently now in slang among men. (The Facebook thread I was asked it from dismissed it as Greek “bro” speak.) #4 is rare (it seems to require you to have forgotten any distinct word for “girl”), but it is attested in dialect; there is a more widespread variant as an omen name, given to girls to express the wish that the next child be a boy. The genderfuck meaning inherent in #1 is possible, and it seems to colour the slang usage; but the historical precedent for genderfuck in Modern Greek, kaliarda, would have found αγορίνα too bland to bother with.

That αγορίνα would have been interpreted as “tomboy” in a more gender-conservative millieu should, I trust, not come as a surprise. The grammatical gender of αγορίνα inheres in its suffix, and an interpretation aligning grammatical to biological gender is less confronting to gender norms than an interpretation that differentiates grammatical from biological gender, and aligns it to behavioural gender: a tomboy is still a girl. After all, while Greeks have tomboys in traditional society, they are not the challenge to common understanding of gender that, say, the sworn virgins of northern Albania are; the tomboy can be dismissed safely as “just a phase”. (Rural norms would have seen to that.)

The interpretation as “darling boy” is somewhat more convoluted, and it does rely on a disconnect between grammatical gender and biological gender.

The semi-randomness of grammatical gender already makes it possible for there to be a disconnect between the two. So long as the predicate noun is an abstraction, men will not take offence if they are called a βεντέτα (French vedette) “a star”, or a προσωπικότητα “personality > VIP”. Similarly, the feminine augmentative -άρα can be used for macho males with impunity, although I have the impression that the masculine augmentative -αράς is more common; one will certainly see both the vocatives παιχτάρα “mighty soccer player (fem.)” and παιχταρά “mighty soccer player (masc.)”

But that’s because there’s content in the feminine morpheme that men can regard as manly praise, outweighing an incidental feminine gender. In the case of αγορίνα, or similar formations, that is not the case: the sole meaning of the feminine morpheme is to indicate that the referent is feminine. So a Greek straight man will take offence if he is called a γιατρίνα “female doctor (colloquial)” or an αθηναία “Athenian woman”.

So how is meaning #3, where the boy’s gender is not problematised, even possible?

The clue to #3 is in a different disconnect between grammatical and biological gender. Cross-linguistically, the neuter gender is associated not only with inanimate entities, that have no gender, but also with sexually immature entities, which do not yet express gender socially. As an extension of that meaning, neuters have come to have a hypocoristic meaning: they express affection, they indicate that something is cute—just as we think presexual children are cute. They can even be extended to one’s lover to express affection, even though the point of having a lover is some degree of sexual expression. So just as English uses baby as a term of affection, Greek can use neuters—even neuter pronouns. Απού τη χέρα το βαστώ και πάλι αναζητώ το, says the Cretan folk song: “I hold it by the hand, and I’m still missing it”—where “it” refers to one’s beloved, not in order to dehumanise them or misgender them, but as a sign of affection.

There is, it turns out, a subterranean current of Greek using feminine forms to refer to males, as a sign of affection: “darling boy, dear boy”. That current has to be subterranean enough not to lead to offence to straight men in traditional society. So it can’t be used in traditional Greek straight society, with a straight face, by straight men, or towards straight men. (There’s a reason for those “straight” qualifiers, and I’ll come to it.) It has to have been used in a social context where the referent’s masculinity is not seriously challenged, so that the secondary meaning of the feminine—someone society regards as lovely and loveable—is still accessible.

It is possible, and it’s more readily possible in Greek than in English (to judge by the snickering I seem to be faintly hearing.) It happens between a mother and her son during childhood.

  • Not used by a straight man: check.
  • Not used towards a straight man: check.
  • Not liable to be construed as an insult: check.
  • Not used by someone seen as threatening to gender norms: check.

I can’t find online corroboration, but I’m sure my mother called me κανακάρα “darling (fem.)” as well as κανακάρη “darling (masc.)”; and I have an only partly suppressed memory of my grandmother calling me καλή μου “my dear (fem.)”, and me hoping at the time that it was a speech error.

Moerover, senses #2 “tomboy”, #3 “dear boy”, and #4 “girl” are all attested in Greek dialect, as of 1933, when the first volume of the Academy of Athens’ Historical Dictionary of Modern Greek (in reality the Modern Greek dialect dictionary) came out:

Search results for αγωρ:

  • ἀγωροκόριτσο, τό (lit. “boy-girl”) (Kos, Imbros, Samos) 1. Young woman, maiden having the conduct, the manners of a male child: Δε dρέπισι να τρέχ’ς όξου σαν αγουρουκόρ’τσου; “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, running around outside like a tomboy?” (Imbros) Αυτή είν’ αγουρουκόρ’τσου “She is a tomboy”. (Samos). 2. Maiden having the aspect of a male child (Kos etc.)
    • This is the Standard Modern Greek for “tomboy”
  • ἀγῶρα, ἡ. (Epirus; Syros: Ermoupolis). 1. Girl (Epirus). Song: Εμπάτ’, αγώρες, στο χορό να μάθετε τραγούδια “Enter the dance, girls, to learn songs”. The word is also used as a proper name (Macedonia). 2. Male child, boy, usually as a term of endearment addressed to a male child (Syros: Ermoupolis): Έλ’, αγώρα μου! “Come, my boy!”
  • ἀγωρίτσα, ἡ (Peloponnese: Arcadia, Kalavryta) Girl. The word is also used as a proper name: Thessaly (Karditsa), Thrace.
  • ἀγωροῦ, ἡ. (Thrace: Saranta Ekklisies (now Kırklareli, Turkey), Aenus (now Enez, Turkey), Komotini) Girl having the conduct, the manners of a young man. Τι αγωρού είσαι, μωρή! “What sort of a tomboy are you, damn you!” (Saranta Ekklisies) Αυτή είναι αγωρού “She is a tomboy” (ibid.) The word is also used as a proper name: Thrace.
  • ἀγώρω, ἡ. (Eastern Rumelia: Karyes (now Oreshnik, Bulgaria), Thrace: Saranta Ekklisies) 1. Girl, maiden having the conduct, the manners of a young man (Saranta Ekklisies): Πού ήσουν, μωρή αγώρω; “Where were you, you damn tomboy?”. 2. Girl, maiden (Karyes): Song: Άνοιξ’ άνοιξ’ αγώρω μου, ήρθαν τα μαύρα μάτια “Open up, open up, my girl, the dark eyes [i.e. the person with dark eyes] have arrived.” The word is also used as a proper name: Thessaly, Thrace.
  • ἀγωρῖνα, ἡ. (Thrace: Saranta Ekklisies, Selybria (now Silivri, Turkey)) 1. Girl having the conduct, the manners of a young man (Saranta Ekklisies): Πού ήσου, μωρή αγωρίνα; (πού εγύριζες έξω, όπως οι νέοι;) “Where were you, you damn tomboy?” (that is, where were you wandering outside, like young men do?) (Saranta Ekklisies) 2. Male child, boy, usually term of endearment addressing a male child (Thrace: Selybria): Αγωρίνα μου! “My dear boy!”

You’ll notice a disproportionate representation of the broader region of Thrace (including the parts of geographic Thrace that are now in Bulgaria and Turkey). I would not pay much attention to that. Volume I of the Historical Dictionary came out in 1933. The Academy of Athens was in the process of copying the manuscripts of the Philological Association of Constantinople, when the Greco-Turkish War happened, and (as far as I know) decided there was no Philological Association of Constantinople to return the materials to. The Philological Association of Constantinople had been gathering dialect material for fifty years, while the Academy only started in the 1910s. So we would expect Thrace (the rural neighbourhood of Constantinople) to be overrepresented in Vol. 1.

We would also expect terms like “tomboy” to be underrepresented in general, the way the dictionary’s data was gathered: up until the 50s, data was gathered as glossaries of unusual words, rather than being extracted from running text. The form appears to be widespread enough not to have been seen as particularly exotic.

Pause, finally, for the old-fashioned spelling of ἀγωρ- with an omega. That’s the kind of etymological spelling that made all the sense in the world in the 1930s, and that has been abandoned now, becoming the contrarian preserve of Babiniotis. The spelling rule used to be: if a marked spelling of a vowel (<η, ω, αι>, etc) can be found somewhere in the history of a vernacular form, it should be preserved in the spelling of that form. The spelling rule has now become: if the marked spelling in the history of a vernacular form is not blindingly obvious, ignore it and used the unmarked spelling instead (<ι, ο, ε>). αγόρι < ἄωρος is not blindingly obvious; hence αγόρι is no longer spelled with an omega.

Now, the forms line up against their definitions like so:

form girl omen name tomboy term of endearment to boy
αγόρα * * *
αγορίτσα * *
αγορού * *
αγόρω * * *
αγορίνα * *

I don’t know that any particular correlations can be drawn between the meanings, with the exception of the omen name, which to me patterns strongly with the meaning “girl”. (“You’re a girl, but I wish you were a boy, so I’ll call you Female Boy.”) Αγορού is used as an omen name but not in the meaning “girl”; but αγορού and αγόρω are from the same area and are related—-ού is the modern reflex of Ancient -ώ—so I suspect that αγορού did also mean “girl”.

So αγόρα in Ermoupolis, and αγορίνα in Thrace, already meant “boy as a term of endearment”, with no direct indication of femininity, in 1933. The fact that the form turns up in Ermoupolis is itself significant: Ermoupolis was founded by refugees during the Greek War of Independence, and it was identified as an early site for the formation of Standard Modern Greek as a dialect koine. The use of αγόρα as a term of endearment there is consistent with that use of feminine endearments for boys being pandialectal. And the fact that αγορίνα was only attested in Thrace is likely a coincidence due to gaps in data collection, rather than providing a Thracian (or Constantinopolitan) lineage for the modern slang use of the term.

So much for 1933. The word αγορίνα does not turn up in Danguitsis’ dictionary of slang from 1967,1 nor Zahos’ dictionary from 1981.2 On Google Books, it turns up somewhere in a 1941 journal on Thracian dialect. It shows up in the second edition of Vlastos’ Thesaurus, from 1989, as a hyponym of “girl”; but it does not show up in the first edition from 1931 (although αγοροκόριτσο and αγριοκόριτσο “wild girl” do). Koulakis’ Μεγάλο ετυμολογικό λεξικό της νεοελληνικής γλώσσας from 1993 gives it only as “tomboy”, and so does Demetrakos’ dictionary from 1953.

On the other hand, the Triantafyllidis Institute’s dictionary (1998) gives it as “term of endearment for a boy, or more generally for a familiar male person”. Babiniotis (2nd ed, 2005) lists it under αγώρι (because that’s how he spells it), as “term of endearment used in address”. And the Papyros dictionary, Λεξικό της Ελληνικής Γλώσσας 2006, which is a reworking of Demetrakos, has “tomboy; (as term of endearment) dear boy”. (No, I don’t own the Academy of Athens’ new Dictionary Of Modern Greek Usage. Yet.)

There are gaps enough in the record that it’s not 100% clear what happened; but what seems to have happened is that the motherly use of αγορίνα has generalised recently, to a term that can be used by and to grown straight men. In the process, the older meaning “tomboy” has been displaced; in the Facebook thread that started this, a user expressed surprised at my announcement of that older meaning.

But the use of αγορίνα among straight men can’t be just an idle generalisation. All the senses of αγορίνα to this point have been safe for the patriarchy: criticising girls’ failure to adhere to gender norms; wishing girls were boys; women expressing intimacy towards their prepubescent sons strictly within the hearth. None of those senses questions a man’s virility in the public sphere. Bros calling each other αγορίνα does not follow that pattern.

I find no evidence that sense #1, “effeminate boy”, ever existed for αγορίνα; but it can exist, and people react to its current use as if it does exist. If straight men are suddenly calling each other in Greece αγορίνα, they aren’t likely to be doing so with a straight face. The term is something of a challenge—even if it’s only as mild a challenge as the use of ladies by coaches towards sportsmen in English. The reactions towards the word on slang.gr deserve their own article—as does the fact that Greek street queans of the 1960s did not use the word αγορίνα in sense #1, and wouldn’t have.


  • I don’t know that any particular correlations can be drawn between the meanings, with the exception of the omen name, which to me patterns strongly with the meaning “girl”.

    Tell a lie:

    αγορίτσα, unlike the others, has a diminutive suffix. It doesn’t have the meaning “tomboy”. I think that’s consistent: the affection and cutesiness of -itsa is inconsistent with the opprobrium and masculinity ascribed to tomboys.

  • David Marjanović says:

    I’m reminded of all the Slavic nicknames with feminine endings.

    • Elaborate? There may well be a connection somewhere.

      • David Marjanović says:

        Admittedly most of the examples I know are Russian, while South Slavic (like Ukrainian) is fond of neuter-looking -ko nicknames for men and indeed has -o as the only form of some non-nicknames.

        Serbian: Владислав, Зоран, Теодор > Влада, Зоза, Теша
        Russian: Владимир, Евгений, Михаил > Володя/Вова, Гена/Женя, Миша; everyone in -слав > Слава; Александр > Саша, exactly the same as Александра

        All declined like any other noun in -а, almost all of which are feminine.

  • Philip Newton says:

    I’m surprised at “ἀγῶρα, ἡ.”

    Aren’t final alphas after rhos always (considered) long? Then the accent would have had to be acute rather than circumflex.

    Or is this already demotic simplification where final alphas are always considered short when determining which kind of accent to use, no matter what Ancient Greek would or would not have done?

    • The accentuation is odd, you’re right. In fact, while the inline citation of the form has a circumflex, the search result headword has been corrected to an acute.

      Demotic eventually moved on to accentual simplifications, but my impression is, those simplifications were “when in doubt, use an acute”, which would not make for a short -α.

      I’m sure it wasn’t an error, but I’m having difficulty at this remove working out what the rule of the time was. Anyone else?

      • Philip Newton says:

        Ah, right, “when in doubt, use an acute” sounds right.

        I was probably misremembering the nature of the simplification.

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  • November 2017
    M T W T F S S
    « Oct    
    1. Δαγκίτσης, Κ. 1967. Λεξικό της Λαϊκής. Αθήνα: Ι.Γ. Βασιλείου.

    2. Ζάχος, Ε. 1981. Το Λεξικό της Πιάτσας. Αθήνα: Κάκτος.

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