Albert/Bedwere/Nicholas: Imaginum Vocabularium Latinum in Ancient Greek

By: | Post date: 2019-03-02 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Ancient Greek, Modern Greek

In the Textkit Greek and Latin Forum, Bedwere has been translating Sigrid Albert’s Imaginum Vocabularium Latinum into Ancient Greek over the past year (as Λεξικὸν Ἑλληνικόν).

Albert’s dictionary is a Duden-style illustrated dictionary, where concepts are organised into thematic groups, and pictures of the concepts are accompanied by Latin glosses. In the (extensive) back of the dictionary, there are indexes of all Latin words used, and of their equivalents in German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish. The intriguing part of the dictionary is that the concepts are modern. (Or at least, modern-ish: the dictionary was written in the 90s, which means its stationery and technology section has dated badly: when was the last time anyone dealt with a typewriter ink ribbon?) So the Latin in the dictionary is substantially Neo-Latin.

The dictionary is not only of its time, but of its place. It was written by a German, for German students of Latin, and it shows: several of the concepts involved are heavily rooted in German culture, and a few of them need research for an unknowing outsider to make sense of. (Why is there a puck being used in curling? Oh, that’s Bavarian curling. And what precisely is a Konzern anyway?)

But both of these make it a fascinating undertaking, to see how Latin has been pummelled into place to cope with modern concepts. And the same holds for the dictionary in its Ancient Greek clothing. As Bedwere’s blurb puts it:

χαῖρε, ὦ φίλε ἀναγνῶστα. σύγε τούτῳ τῷ λεξικῷ χρώμενος, οὐ μόνον γράψεις τε καὶ λαλήσεις περὶ τὰ καθ’ ἡμέραν τῶν ἀρχαίων Ἑλλήνων ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ τὰ τῶν νῦν ἀνθρώπων. αὕτη γάρ ἐστιν ἡ εἰς τὴν Ἑλληνκὴν γλῶσσαν μετάφρασις ἐκείνου τοῦ εἰκόνων Ῥωμαϊκοῦ λεξικοῦ

Halfway through Bedwere’s work, I got involved in the project, suggesting corrections and emendations to his translation, informed by my perspective as a Modern Greek speaker. As you can well imagine, the project had added fascination for me, not in terms of Ancient Greek, but in terms of Modern Greek. I made a point of seeking out any and all instances where Puristic Greek had already come up with its own Hellenic-based renderings, and minimising novel coinages as much as possible.

Which means that, for the purposes of this work, I embraced linguistic Purism, and did a lot of researching of older sources (including some quality time spent with the Iliou Encyclopaedia, Νεώτερον Εγκυκλοπαιδικόν Λεξικόν Ηλίου, 1945–1960). And I found it a lot of fun!

There were a lot of discoveries along the way:

  • The occasional faux ami with Ancient Greek (this is still, after all, meant to be a picture dictionary of Ancient Greek, not Puristic Modern Greek.) For example, see my startled discovery that, whereas Modern Greek differentiates drying something of excess moisture (στεγνώνω: plates, hair, clothes) vs drying something up (ξεραίνω: fruit, rusks, mummies), Ancient Greek used ξηραίνω for both. As a result, I was adamant that a hair dryer had to be a στεγνωτήρ, and ξηρός with relation to hair only made sense as dry, flaky hair as opposed to dried, not wet hair. Not so: the semantics of Greek have in fact changed over the last two thousand years. (It took a couple of passages tucked away in Aristotle for me to work that out.)
  • Old dictionaries of Greek (pre-1850), which have become widely available thanks to Google Books, are very valuable for working out how Greek used to deal with Modern concepts before the influx of French, and indeed even before the influx of Puristic coinages. Theocharopoulos (1834), for example, or Daviers (1844). And I continue to have a lot of time for Hepites (1912). (I have even more time for Dehèque (1825), because it captures a lot of early vernacular Greek, and I found it very useful in my time at the TLG; but Dehèque did not turn out to be as useful for this particular exercise.)
  • I was taken aback by how modern some of the concepts in the dictionary really were. There were equivalents of buttons in antiquity, for example, but the clear distinction between buttons, pins, and brooches is quite recent, and one that even 19th century vernacular dictionaries struggled with (θηλυκωτήριον: “something you insert into a plug [“female”]). The notion of nightclothes was meaningless in Ancient Greece, which is why the closest terms available are pretty much just blankets. And so on.
  • Purism ran out of steam in Greek, and French loans, took over, by the early 20th century: certainly by the 1930s. The early Puristic rendering of zipper in the 1910s as τορμοσυνάπτης “peg-linker” for example was likely coined too late to prevail against French φερμουάρ, and it is quite forgotten now. I could find no trace of a Puristic rendering of “fashion model”, a concept which would have been popularised in Greece by the 1930s: only the French μανεκέν and the Italian μοντέλο. And indeed, even “roulette” had no rendering but the French ρουλέτα and the Italian ρολίνα as early as the 1860s.
  • There is nonetheless a large body of Puristic coinages that have stuck from before the 1930s, and there is a smaller number of Puristic coinages that are succeeding and taking root to this day; γενόσημος for “generic”, for example, or λογισμικό for “software”. This of course varies by domain—sometimes seemingly randomly: there is a full Puristic terminology for soccer (although some English words have persisted in usual usage), but the terminology for tennis is substantially English. (That is not *that* random: tennis has a long history in Greece, but it was not mainstream until fairly recently, let alone reported on in the press; so the pressure for Greek-based vocabulary was simply not there, the way it was for soccer. There has never been a Hellenic term for “tennis racket”, for example: it has always been ρακέτα.)
  • And of course, there is more purism in official usage than in colloquial usage, to this day. This becomes really obvious with automotive terminology: the local garage and the Ministry of Transport have completely different vocabularies: e.g. πεντάλι vs ποδομοχλός/ποδόπληκτρον for “pedal”.
    • Whenever the Glorious Ancient Ancestors are discussed, there is an immediate and unsurprising recoiling from modern loanwords. For example a hairdresser’s cape is always a μπέρτα < French berthe; but the discussion for schools of an ancient sculpture depicting a hairdresser could not use anything but the ancient-looking περιώμιον.
    • There are ebbs and flows in fashion in language, and there has been some movement back towards more archaic usage in Greek in the past decade or so, as a reaction to the “victory” of Demotic in the 70s and 80s. I have had a waiter offer me an ἀπόσταγμα for “spirits”; I don’t think that would have been possible twenty years ago.
    • The parallel legal texts translated for the European Union have been a rich source of Puristic coinages (prominently figuring in online search engines like and
    • Online shopping catalogues are a boon for purism as well: the individual items on sale often use loanwords in their descriptions, but the categories of items in the sidebar (which are, after all, formal ontologies devised by boffins) tend to use Puristic terms, or at least more abstract terms. That was particularly noticeable on (“Scrooge”, i.e. “Thrifty”). This is not a great example (I couldn’t find the one that made me sit up and take note), but to give a poor example: the category is Διανομείς Καρτών “Card Distributors” (which the site feels obligated to translate in English (!) as Card Shufflers, but the individual items are ανακατευτήρας “shuffler”, σαμπό < French chabot, μοιραστής “sharer”.
    • A somewhat unexpected source of purisms has been the description of stock photos online. The usual term for “hair roller” for example is μπικουτί < French bigoudi; but the Puristic βοστρυχωτής shows up instead in photo search engines like Again, I strongly suspect the tag words for these sites are coming from formal ontologies translated by boffins, rather than colloquial live translation.
  • A lot of Puristic coinages were of course awkward calques from French; and in the context of trying to use Modern Ancient Greek, some of them are just too awkward to be palatable. So κόμμα for “political party” is just a calque of partie, and “fraction” really would not make immediate sense to someone who didn’t know the etymology of partie. The Classical phratry “sub-tribe” would at least make more sense as a social sub-grouping (although its modern use to mean “faction” is itself anachronistic.)
  • Similarly, some attempts to reimport Ancient Greek terms into Puristic would be just too loose to work: καταιονάω has been used for “to shower”, but its original meaning in Hippocrates is “to foment, i.e. to bathe with warm lotions”.
  • Liddell-Scott consciously purged itself of Mediaeval words with each successive edition, where they were obvious (attested in Christian theologians). Where they were less obvious, or more relevant to Classics (in scholiasts and mediaeval dictionaries), they were kept: user beware. That applies for example, notoriously, to στοίχημα in the modern sense of “wager”; it also applies to late-attested derivations like ἀποχαιρετίζω “to farewell”; ἀλφάδιον “carpenter’s square; modern: water level” (so called because they were A-shaped) is also clearly mediaeval; and the meaning “divorce” for διαζύγιον is no earlier than Arethas in the 9th century.
  • There has been a little bit of work on Modern coinages in Ancient Greek done outside the context of Puristic and Modern Greek: the Akropolis World News, for example, or the Ancient Greek Wikipedia. These attempts are welcome, but not infallible: ἀσθεν-ούχ-ημα instead of ἀσθεν-όχ-ημα for “ambulance”, for instance, is incorrect. I am biased towards coinages by Greeks, but those coinages are mostly morphologically reliable.
  • … Not always though! I put my foot in it when I introduced myself to the θαμῶνες “regulars” of Textkit: that is a modern derivation from θαμά “often”—and an obvious calque of French habitué; but it is also a derivation impossible in Ancient Greek. ἐλατήριον for “spring” is another such modern error: in Ancient Greek it is a purgative (“that which drives out”), and the modern sense “spring” has been affected by the etymologically related ἐλατός “ductile”.
  • The Centre of Research into Technical Terms and Neologisms of the Academy of Athens (unsurprisingly) was a last bastion of Purism, and they were still suggesting Hellenic coinages for technical terms until the late 2000s. I got a lot of value out of their Athens Olympics volume of sporting terms. (As should be clear, they had a lot of coining work to do with tennis, and not much with soccer. In fact, with some tennis terminology, they just balked: there is no Hellenic neologism proposed to counter σερβίς “service” or ρακέτα “racket”.) The academy’s French- and Icelandic-style work on puristic coinages has attracted derision (see this this newspaper review of the Olympics volume), and the centre has given up on proposing Puristic alternatives in the past few years, now that they are under new management: they simply can’t keep up with the influx of terminology, and they aren’t being taken seriously as an authority for terminology, so they have now switched to descriptive rather than prescriptive work.
  • By the way (as you may have guessed): unlike the people who actually live in Greece, I find these Puristic coinages charming and enjoyable, and I am saddened at Greek giving up and borrowing English words wholesale. But its their language, they get to make it impure and parasitic. (And of course, it’s not like this kind of thing hasn’t happened before. Like, say, with French a century ago. Or Turkish a century before that.)
  • There are a few nice anecdotes to be had. Greek has stuck with referring to bronze medals as copper medals (χάλκινα), because they were copper in the Athens Olympics of 1896, and damned if they were going to pay any attention to the switch to bronze in 1900. On the development of Greek conventions for telling time with minutes, I will post in a future article…
  • I knew this, but others may not: The Perseus copy of LSJ has systematically mis-stressed words when it filled in the prefixes of lemmata. (The LSJ source text would give forms derived from a headword by just their suffix, e.g. λῐθολογ-έω “build with unworked stones”… -ος “one who picks out stones for building”.) Perseus often got the completions wrong (e.g. λιθόλογος, not the correct λιθολόγος), and unfortunately sometimes, like in that instance, you need to know the meaning of the word to know where the accent should go. (Other times, the accentuation they came up with is impossible.) The TLG copy of the LSJ spent a lot of time correcting these; unfortunately I’ve lost access to it, but the rest of you have not.

Our work concluded in January, and you can see the results:

The dictionary does not include an English–Greek glossary, or the images (although the Textkit forum thread includes most of them); that work could be done by someone else, but there will be some difficulties using the dictionary without them. To get the most value of the dictionary for now, you should obtain a copy of Albert’s Latin original, and use them in parallel.

I recommend the linguistically curious go through my discussion on Textkit: it’s somewhat dry in that it follows the dictionary page by page, but there are some pleasant surprises to be had in there.


  • David Marjanović says:

    And what precisely is a Konzern anyway?

    In the usage of anyone who hasn’t studied economics or law? Just any big corporation.

    λογισμικό for “software”

    Modeled on the French logiciel?

    • The dictionary was differentiating Konzern and Kartel, so I had to dig a bit more. And I had not thought of it, but obviously yes, modelled on logiciel.

      • David Marjanović says:

        A Kartell is a cartel: an agreement (legal or not) between independent corporations not to compete.

Leave a Reply

  • Subscribe to Blog via Email

    Join 307 other subscribers

  • March 2019
    M T W T F S S
    « Feb    
%d bloggers like this: