GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition Part #2

By: | Post date: 2017-10-22 | Comments: 5 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

Among the reactions I saw on Facebook to the Tsipras meme in GTAGE: The Tsipras Edition Part #1 was this by Aineias Kapouranis:

So Donald, to say the figs figs and the tub tub, and because I ate the whole world to find you I believe that it is better to say them at a taverna or if that is not possible, do you have weather for a coffee?

to say the figs figs and the tub tub

This being GTAGE, of course we have to start with a comically robotic translation: the verb being dodged here is to call.

The phrase alluded to is λέω τα σύκα σύκα και τη σκάφη σκάφη, “I call figs figs and troughs troughs”, which is taken from Ancient Greek (Lucian: τὰ σῦκα σῦκα, τὴν σκάφην δὲ σκάφην ὀνομάσων) is the Greek original underlying the English expression “to call a spade a spade”, thanks to Erasmus’ mistranslation of σκάφη “trough, basin” (something you dig out) as σκαφεῖον “hoe, spade” (something you dig with). On the Greek expression see Wikipedia, Sarantakos, and Matt Colvin.

The original makes sense because “figs” were what female genitals were called in Ancient Greek; and one would have to presume that “trough” had a similarly taboo meaning. Sarantakos hesitates and says that’s his opinion only, but Colvin has dug up an account of the phrase in those terms from 1828 by Karl Christian Gottlieb Kessler. Both Kessler and Sarantakos speculate it refers to one of the meanings of the diminutive σκάφιον, “chamber pot”. With enough imagination, I’m sure it can be brought back to anatomy too.

I’ve just discovered that the expression is now avoided in America, because of the racist meaning that spade has developed. I’ve already posted on Quora on Is the use of the word “niggardly” acceptable and politically correct?. I’ll only add that the secondary use of spade is unknown in Australia, and I’m going to continue calling a spade a bloody shovel.

I ate the whole world to find you
GTAGE loves figurative usage of verbs, and Modern Greek does do a lot with the verb “eat”. Here’s the listing from Triantafyllidis’ dictionary:

  • (To eat)
    • I1. To eat.
    • I2. (pass) to be edible (these cherries are not [to be] eaten)
    • I3. (of animals) to bite (watch out that the dog doesn’t eat you; the mosquitoes have eaten me)
  • (To eat away)
    • II1a. to corrode something (rust eats iron)
    • II1b. (metaphorical) to garble words (he eats his words)
    • II1c. to subtract part of something to give it a desired shape (I’ll eat the wood beams so they fit better)
  • (To consume)
    • IIa. to spend, to waste (he ate his fortune on gambling; he ate his youth in exile)
    • IIb. to use up materials (that car eats a lot of petrol)
    • IIc. to use up space or time (reading that book won’t eat more than a week of your time; that huge table eats the whole room)
  • (To harm by injury)
    • III1a. to cause someone bodily or psychological harm (illness ate him; dampness has eaten me in this basement)
    • III1b. to do someone in, to kill someone (they ate him so he wouldn’t talk; the sea ate him)
    • III1c1. to suffer from something falling on one (he ate a flowerpot on the head; he ate a kick)
    • III1c2. to suffer from a punishment (he ate ten years jail; he ate wood = he was beaten; he ate noodles = he was romantically rejected)
  • (To harm otherwise)
    • III2a. to steal or appropriate (he ate my wallet; he ate a million euros from me; he ate his girlfriend = he stole his girlfriend; you won’t eat my spot in the queue; he ate me at the scales = he tricked me through faulty scales)
    • III2b. to trick, to deceive (don’t give me that kind of talk: I won’t eat it; he ate the fairy tale; I don’t eat hay/stupid-grass = I am not easily fooled)
    • III2c. to endure (I ate that insult too, and didn’t say a word)
  • (To defeat)
    • III3. to defeat in a contest, to best someone (we ate them! their team ate two goals from ours; he eats them all in maths; he ate it in the exams)
  • (To wear down with words)
    • III4a. to pursue or request something insistently and pressuring someone (he ate me to buy him a bike; he ate himself to go on an excursion; he is eating himself for a fight; he ate my ears for us to buy a car; I ate the world to find you)
    • III4b. to argue continuously (the two brothers are eating each other with no good reason)
    • III4c. to grumble (don’t keep eating yourself, say “thank God” once in a while)
  • (To itch)
    • III5. To itch (my head eats me; your nose eats you = you will get a beating; my palm eats me = I am about to get or give money; his tongue eats him = he is dying to say something)

Phew. I hope you can see the semantic transitions at work there.

The GTAGE rendering here is of III4a: “I ate the world to find you”, which the Triantafyllidis lexicographers interpret as “I nagged everyone in the world looking for you”, grouping it with other expressions for nagging or insisting. The mental image I get is instead is IIb: to go through the world one nook and cranny at a time, using it up in the process of looking for you.

to say them at a taverna
GTAGE likes dummy objects, as we saw in the previous post with “it breaks her to me”. Here’s another: “to say them” is to say things, of course; and when it is use with a plural subject, it means by default having a discussion, where a variety of things are uttered.

(The question να τα πούμε; “may we say them?”, on the other hand, is Christmas carollers requesting permission to sing—vernacular Greek says songs, as well as singing them.)

When “say them” is used with a singular subject, it still means saying things; but the connotation becomes saying everything that you have to say, purposefully: τα είπα και ξαλάφρωσα  “I said what was on my mind and I was relieved”, τα είπα και έφυγα “I said what I had to say and I left”, καλά τα είπα; “was I convincing in saying what I had to say?”
do you have weather for a coffee?
Students of Ancient Greek, and particularly students of Koine, pay a lot of attention to the distinction between χρόνος and καιρός, since Ancient Greek uses both, and English usually just uses time for both. The distinction the pair makes is between time in general, and the time for something, the right time to do something. English has ways of expressing the latter that don’t involve the word time, though it’s not as consistent about it as Greek: opportunity, for example, or occasion. Or in archaic English, season.

The distinction persists in Modern Greek, although χρόνος is now learnèd, and fixed expressions tend instead to use ώρα “hour” as a mass noun. So there is a subtle distinction made in the two ways of saying “I don’t have time to see you:

  • δεν έχω ώρα να σε δω “I don’t have hour to see you = I don’t have enough free time to see you”
  • δεν έχω καιρό να σε δω “I don’t have occasion to see you = There isn’t a right time for me to see you”


  • έχεις ώρα για καφέ; “Do you have any free time for a coffee?”
  • έχεις καιρό για καφέ; “Is any time good for you to have a coffee?”

In a traditional agrarian society, the right time to do something will immediately bring to mind the right time to do agrarian work. Hence season in English turns from the proper occasion for something (To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven), to the season of the year: spring is the season for sowing, autumn is the season for harvesting.

Greek underwent a similar transition, but at a more granular level: it permitted the right time for agrarian work to vary day by day. καιρός thus acquired the meaning “weather”: a sunny day is the occasion/season for working outdoors, a rainy day is the occasion/season not to.

Hence, “do you have weather (= season = the right time) for a coffee?”


  • […] two previous posts, I had gone through the Golden Treasury of Anglo-Greek Expressions (GTAGE) approach to Alexis […]

  • Philip Newton says:

    Turkish also calls singing şarkı söylemek “to say a song”.

    I wonder whether there was influence here and if so, in which direction.

    • Oh, definitely, and there’s a lot of parallels like that. It’s hard to tell, given that we’re trying to reconstruct phraseology before Greek/Turkish contact, in a period not well attested for either (10th century). Here I would guess Turkish, because Ancient Greek doesn’t seem to hint at it.

  • John Cowan says:

    This Seppo is happy to call a spade a spade, to picnic, to get down to the nitty-gritty, and so on, though niggard(ly) isn’t worth the misunderstanding it provokes, and squaw is just plain insulting.

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