Old Man Hare

By: | Post date: 2009-08-12 | Comments: 16 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Mediaeval Greek, Modern Greek
Tags: , , , , ,

[EDIT: followup post]

As I already mentioned in the past, the occasional Early Modern Greek word ends up in LSJ, because it has been used in a scholion to explain an Ancient word, and LSJ figured they’ll take all the help they can get.

Such a word is λαγόγηρως. Literally, it’s “Old Man Hare”. Actually, literally, it’s “Hare Old Man”, but that just wouldn’t work in English. As recorded in LSJ, it’s used in the scholia to Lucian Dream 24 to gloss μυγαλῆ “field-mouse”. You won’t find it in the 1906 Rabe edition of the Scholia to Lucian, which the TLG has: it’s “ap Bast. Ep. Crit. p. 169”. This is an instance of Classicists’ infuriating habit of using abbreviations without explaining them anywhere (and I checked). After some googling, I worked out it means that the gloss is mentioned in Friedrich Bast’s 1805 Lettre critique de F.-J. Bast à M. J.-F. Boissonade, sur Antoninus Liberalis, Parthenius et Aristénète. (So Rabe’s edition does not contain every single piece of Byzantine commentary ever authored on Lucian? Grrr.)

The word λαγόγηρως is also used in Suda, the mixmatched 10th century encyclopaedia, to gloss μύξος—although that doesn’t help us much, because the only thing we know about a μύξος is that Suda says it’s a λαγόγηρως.

So it’s likely a Modern Greek word, and given the scholion to Lucian, it’s likely a field-mouse, or some other rodent of that ilk. Old Man Hare shows up in other dictionaries too, but it does not show up in the big contemporary dictionaries of Greek; so other lexicographers are on their own. Trapp shrugs and says it’s just “an animal”. (He does at least record the more modern-looking variant λαγόγερος.) Kriaras can afford to go further, particularly given where it has been compiled (I’ll explain in a sec): it reports that a λαγόγερος is “a kind of rat, a μυγαλῆ”, and the passage it cites in response is an Early Modern falconry manual, in which the Old Man Hares are seized by birds of prey.

So those aren’t Human Old Men being seized, and while they could be hares, there’s no reason to think the Lucian scholion is wrong: it’s some sort of rodent.

It’s also a μύξος, whatever on earth that is, and as I was perusing recent additions to Suda On Line, I noted the newly translated entry on μύξος, expressing some puzzlement about glossing an unknown word with another unknown word.

At this stage, I had not checked LSJ, and I had not checked Trapp (which would have told me nothing anyway), and I certainly had not checked Kriaras. Instead I noticed that the two unknown words were not the same flavour of unknown. Suda didn’t just say a μύξος is an Old Man Hare: it said a μύξος is an Old Man Hare παρ’ ἡμῖν. That παρ’ ἡμῖν means “with us”; and in Suda’s way of structuring definitions, it means “in our language”. As in, our vernacular, not Ancient Greek.

So without looking at Kriaras, I realised this word was at least Early Modern Greek, and quite likely Modern Modern Greek. I popped across to the online Triantafyllidis dictionary, and didn’t find Old Man Hare there: so it’s not a word that’s made it to the Contemporary Standard. But figuring that there are always surprises to be had on the Interwebs, I googled λαγόγερος just in case.

I found Old Man Hare in a Greek digital photography forum. Like me, the photographer was an urbanite who wouldn’t know a field-mouse from a dormouse (which was the Suda translator’s first surmise). I mean… I don’t know: *are* they the same thing? But the chap took the pic, recorded the place where and when the photo was taken—midday, near Edessa, in Greek Macedonia; and added what the locals call the beastie. Ladies and Gentlemen, courtesy of poster “Junior”, meet Old Man Hare:

He exists, and he certainly looks like what Lucian’s scholiast had in mind—and what the falconry writer established was an appropriate afternoon snack for an eagle.

And of course, some Greek dialectologist somewhere has recorded the fact that in Edessa (and probably elsewhere) this beastie is called an Old Man Hare. Because the Modern Greek dialect dictionary is still stuck at delta, it’s not straightforward to find out who—although at least a draft of the remaining letters is now prepared. But Kriaras’ dictionary staff have a fair collection of dialect glossaries on site, so they would have had the wherewithal to figure it out. And even if they didn’t, Edessa is just a 94 km drive away from downtown Salonica. You’ll probably run into Old Man Hare before you get to the waterfalls. (That’s why the Other Language’s name for Edessa is Vodena, “waters”.)

Three other hits of note for Old Man Hare online. One was the Suda On Line entry, cached when it wasn’t yet translated. One was from another Greek forum, this time ecological, recording Old Man Hare as one of the animals you might be surprised to find in the vicinity of Thessalonica. The Byzantine pronunciation /laɣoɣiros/ seems to survive for our rodent friend, because one posting later, courtesy of poster Kostas Karpadakis, Old Man Hare shows up again, this time spelled as λαγόγυρος, “Hare Roundabout”:

I still can’t tell you whether it’s dormouse or field-mouse. Or hamsteroid. I showed the three links to Nikos Sarantakos (he whose Magnificent Blog I keep extolling), and he said that even before he got to the forum mention, he’d worked out this must have been a χαμστεροειδές. That kind of nonce macaronic coinage—American stem, archaic suffix—is pretty damned funny if you’re steeped in the angst of Greek language history.

*I* can’t tell you, but Karpadakis did not take the photo himself: he linked to zoology site in Novi Sad Uni, and the photo is labelled s-citellus02.jpg. A citellus is none of the above: as the site itself says, this is a Spermophilus citellus, which in English is the European ground squirrel, aka European Souslik.

And when I google his “historically wrong” spelling λαγόγυρος, I get not three or four hits, but 321. Confirming it as the Spermophilus citellus or Citellus citellus. Some more links: citellus #1, citellus #2, citellus #3. And a table of beastie names at Nature Names for Tourists: Local names for distinctive European mountain wildlife:









European ground squirrel or souslik

suseł moręgowany

syseľ pasienkový




λαγόγυρος; σπερμόφιλος

Spermophilus citellus; also Citellus citellus

So the Bulgarians got their word for the beastie from the Greeks.

In fact, that /laluɡer/ in the Bulgarian may suggest the modern spelling λαγόγυρος, which in Byzantine Greek would have been /laˈɣoɣyros/, is more accurate, and the Old Man bit was a written correction… Nah, the /u/ is in the wrong spot. Some Bulgarian phonological process, I guess: the Greek Macedonian pronunciation would be /laˈɣoɣirus/, which doesn’t explain лалугер. So I’ll stick with the assumption for now that this was originally Old Man Hare reanalysed as Hare Roundabout, until I hear something to the contrary. And that the accepted modern spelling is λαγόγυρος, although that form isn’t in Triantafyllidis’ dictionary either.

The third link for λαγόγερος, Sarantakos dismissed as “an incredible concoction”, and I’m not disagreeing. The article was by an Italian classicist, and it was dealing with the Suda entry on μύξος as a whole, which goes into bizarre beliefs about donkey urine. The identity of Old Man Hare comes up just before the conclusion.

I’ve never studied Italian, but what with Esperanto, Latin, French, and a fair exposure to Classical Music in my youth, I can sort of read it. It’s helped working in a French & Italian department, and not being as embarrassed about speaking in Super Mario Bros. Italian as I am about speaking in Pepe Le Pew French. I could even make the minimal effort of dealing with the mojibake of the page, such as by, I dunno, switching my browser encoding to Latin-1.

But once I’d worked out the article’s claim, I had no motivation to proceed further. A dictionary I had not checked was Sophocles’, and the author accepted and elaborated on Sophocles’ surmise that an Old Man Hare was a kind of fish. Because λαγώς was also a word for sea-hare.

Wee tim’rous beastie, you’re not a sea-slug of the Aplysiomorpha clade perchance, are you?

No, I didn’t think so.

That is ungracious and horrid of me. I had the benefit of late Aughties Interwebs, this guy… well, this guy was writing in 2006, so he did as well. Hm. I had access to Modern Greek (even if it was in digital photography forums, detouring via Novi Sad Uni’s Zoology department), this guy likely didn’t. Still, the guy was not writing after the compilation of LSJ, and even if Suda is obscure about Old Man Hare, the scholiast to Lucian is not. Sophocles at least offered a definition for λαγόγηρως, but Sophocles *is* dated, and you can do better than that in general. The falconry manual may well have been inaccessible; but Suda has a whopping big “in our vernacular” in there, he could at least have asked some Greek contacts.

The blunder here is violating the Common Sense precept of etymology: If you’re looking for Latin etymologies, you start your search on the Tiber. I tracked down the origins of that saying in my personal blog just before—taking a break from obsessing about constructions of Franco-Canadian identity; and it sounds a hell of a lot better in the original German. I’m always a little miffed when Classicists get as far as Byzantine Greek, and don’t notice the live language spoken on the other side. (Witness LSJ’s definition of στοίχημα: it’s “wager”, not “deposit”, and they got “deposit” by a casual reading of Eustathius’ scholion.)

But now at least, we have photographic refutation. In Edessa, you search for etymologies on the river Voda.

A sentence I smirk at, I confess, given where you search for the etymology of the river Voda. Now unsurprisingly renamed Edesseos.


  • John Cowan says:

    Not only is the dormouse not a field mouse, it's not a mouse at all: dormice have furry tails rather than the scaly tails typical of mice.

    What is more, the spelling and pronunciation dormouse is a folk etymology. Quoth the OED2:

    [Origin obscure: the second element has been, at least since c. 1575, treated as the word mouse, with pl. mice, though a pl. dormouses is evidenced in 16-17th c. The first element has also from 16th c. been associated with L. dormîre, F. dormir to sleep, (as if dorm-mouse; cf. 16th c. Du. slaep-ratte, slaep-muys); but it is not certain that this is the original composition.

    (Skeat suggests for the first element ON. dár benumbed: cf. also dial. ‘dorrer, a sleeper, a lazy person’ (Halliwell). (The F. dormeuse, fem. of dormeur sleeper, sometimes suggested as the etymon, is not known before 17th c.)]

    The dormir connection is explained by the hibernation of dormice, which also accounts for Lewis Carroll's Dormouse being asleep almost all the time:

    'You might just as well say,' added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, 'that "I breathe when I sleep" is the same thing as "I sleep when I breathe"!'

    'It is the same thing with you,' said the Hatter […].

  • opoudjis says:

    Just looked at Rabe's edition. There are three Paris manuscripts of Lucian, one in the Coislin collection, two just-Parisian. The Parisians are in branch IV of the commentaries, which are derived from branch III, and Rabe felt free to omit added scholia from the "worse" (i.e. more innovative) manuscripts in branch IV: "Ex iis codicibus scholia collegi omnia praeter codices deteriores classis IV" (p. vi)

    Rabe then laments how few scholia must have survived from earlier on, given how many scholia we now have. But he's culled Old Man Hare from surviving into the TLG Lucianic Scholia himself.

  • Thanks for the paper!

    I agree that Bulg. -як stands well also without -άκι, it was my hellenizing intertia to continue with it. All these suffixes may well be Bulgarian.

    That λαγουδέρα is a rudder (or however you call it in English) does not make any (prohibitive) impression on me. The creature is NOT a hare, so connection should not be to hares. The important characteristic of the creatures is that they jump up, or quickly move from horizontal to vertical position. So the bibliography and pictures of medieval rudders should be helpful to establish whether there is a semantic base for such nomination.

  • opoudjis says:

    Further apparent corroboration from the Bulgaromath Ηλεφούφουτος chez Sarantakos of a Greek origin, with a Greek linguist claiming it (in Bulgarian), and a Bulgarian linguist presupposing it.

    Ηλεφούφουτος (which I suppose Englishes to "e-Whatsit") is on his way to the airport, so no quick followup questions to him; but he's posted the link to the Bulgarian linguist's paper. He's cited it in Bulgarian as vengeance for those who cite chunks of English chez Sarantakos. Fair enough; now I gotta find out how bad the Babelfish equivalents for Bulgarian are…

  • opoudjis says:

    @ zmjezhd aka Epea Pteroenta: thank you, the sidestep of *susel to "rat" in Bulgarian is a useful piece of the puzzle. I can't see lagogir- relating to glis/galeɛː, except via λαγο-γαλῆ "hare–weasel". Not an impossible coinage, but we'd have to get from laɣoɣaˈli to laˈɣoɣiros, and that's easier said than done.

    @ Julia: welcome back, and I'll have your paper back to you by the end of the weekend! 🙂 Very welcome data, which now has me quite confused: it seems to support a Greek origin (and there's some other circumstances that weigh that way), but λαγουδερός doesnʼt seem right to me, though we do have the parallel adjective > noun of ονικό for "donkey", and Tsakonian δεντρζικό for "tree".

    But to confirm: the Bulgarian Etymological Dictionary offers no etymology internal to Bulgarian for лалугер? Does it acknowledge a connection to Greek?

    I suspect (without knowing any Bulgarian) that -як is not Greek -άκι, but a Bulgarian morpheme: the Greek Macedonian diminutive is -ούδι, while -άκι is characteristic of Rumeli and the islands.

    I note that the etymology of λαγουδέρα is unknown 🙂 ; it's a rudder, which makes any connection to hares not very obvious…

    There will be a followup post on all this, once I've got it straight in my head (which hasn't happened yet).

  • I have seen a dormouse sleeping in its nest in the Kodry Natural Reserve in Moldavia. What a beautiful delicate creature! One immediately understands why Romans believed that glires are delicious …

    Now, about λαγοειδῆ.

    The Bulgarian is very enlightening as to its Greek source (pace G. Baloglou). Because along with the standard лалугер it has a dialect variant лагудер witnessed at Southern and Eastern Bulgaria, which in my opinion reflects Gr. *λαγουδερός with -δερός producing adj. from nouns, cf. AGr – τερος and η λαγουδέρα.

    Possibly the suffix -δερός has some dialect distribution (Northern Greece?). Any reference handy?

    Other dialect names for the same animal are, in my opinion, also based on λαγός: лагунчи and лъгунчи (< *λαγουντζής, via some -n-containing base, like that found in λαγωνικός). Less transparent are ладжуняк and лъджуняк (<-n-containing base + -άκι?). The palatalization is not clear to me, is anyone aware of underlying *λαγιωνικός?

    If we trust LKNE that λαγωνικό is μσν. ουσιαστικοπ. ουδ. επιθ. λαγωνικό (ενν. σκυλί) < αρχ. ή ελνστ. *λακωνική κύων (πρβ. αρχ. λάκαινα κύων (κυνηγετικό) σκυλί της Λακωνίας΄), παρετυμ. λαγός, could it be that Bulgarian actually reflects the stage with [*k’ > *g’] still present?

    Obviously, there may be other processes involved, so this latter is just a wild guess.

    Unfortunately, the Bulgarian etymological dictionary (BER vol. III) seems to be unaware about these connections. It seems quite usual typologically that the names of small rodents are extended to other rodents and subsequently confused. I vaguely recall some passage in Justin (?) telling about garments made of “pelles murinae”, which made me in my student days to wonder, how many mice does one need to make a garment? And pace some commentators, I still believe that “pelles murinae” are not actual mice (Lat. mures), but some other small rodents, slightly bigger 🙂 .

  • zmjezhd says:

    The common Slavic word for European ground squirrel seems to be: Russian суслик (suslik), Czech sysel obecný, Slovak syseľ pasienkový, Polish suseł moręgowany, borrowed into Germanic at some point, German Ziesel, Zieselmaus, Old English sisemūs 'dormouse'; cf. French cisimus, Romanian şuiţ. Bulgarian had a reflex of this root, but it meant 'rat'.

    I keep wondering if λαγόγηρως is connected at all to Latin glis, gliris, 'dormouse' Greek γαλεη 'weasel', Sanskrit giri 'mouse' < PIE *gḷh-is. Looking at glis also led to the marvelous word glirarium 'place for keeping dormice'.

  • opoudjis says:

    @ Bill: ah, but you asked; that exonerates you!

    As opposed to, say, writing an article confidently claiming it was a sea-slug, and failing to look up even LSJ, let alone its Early Modern Greek counterpart…

  • "I'm always a little miffed when Classicists get as far as Byzantine Greek, and don't notice the live language spoken on the other side."

    I guess I was guilty of that. Sorry.

  • opoudjis says:

    @Bill: In Suda, it is in fact λαγώγηρως. In Modern Greek, there is no Attic Declension, so there's no reason for an omega. Once you hit Modern Greek, you learn not to take historical orthography too seriously anyway; it's all subject to editorial normalisation and this decade's conventions. And there had been no phonetic difference between the two since the New Testament; so the spelling just reflects the scribes' best guess.

  • If the word were originally from Greek lagos, 'hare', wouldn't the first -o- be an omega, not an omicron?

  • opoudjis says:

    A blessing on his house, Sarantakos has also posted on our beastie.

    George and he both sense that the word doesn't quite gel in Greek—Greek, like English, would go with "Old Man Hare" not "Hare Old Man" (or "Hare Roundabout"). So maybe it is originally Bulgarian after all. But the two best avenues for blegging an answer have now been invoked. 🙂

  • opoudjis says:

    My thanks to Language Hat for mentioning the post at his place. Let's see if he provokes a Slavonicist to hit the books about лалугер before I do…

    Given the direction this blog has taken, maybe I should rename it "Hellenisteukontos (It's In English, Honest!)" 🙂

  • opoudjis says:

    George: Honestly, no idea about the ultimate provenance of the word, although the fact that Serbian, like Slovenian, calls it tekunica, makes me suspect that this is not a Slavic word.

    But the hypercorrection you suggest (folk etymology—παρετυμολογία, just like sparrowgrass for asparagus) is certainly plausible. I don't think my library has any Bulgarian etymological dictionaries, but it'd be worth checking if this word has ended up in Old Church Slavonic…

    Also, no idea about how widely the word is used; a sighting in the islands would probably disprove a Slavonic etymology, but a sighting in Southern Greece I'd say would not. I haven't noticed any words other than λαγόγυρος/λαγόγερος in my Googling though.

  • gbaloglou says:

    Is "lagogeros" in use in other parts of Greece beyond Macedonia? If not we should consider the possibility of a back-loan from Bulgarian!

    Going one step further, could "lagogeros" have been a clumsy hellenization, of a now lost originally Slavic word, 8 or 10 or 12 centuries ago?

  • John Cowan says:

    All this reminds me of the frank despair of the Century Dictionary in its definition of horse: 'the well-known quadruped'.

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