First off, Đề would like to thank Bồ for inspiring the topic of this series. The previous post on contranyms which are grouped and named after Janus has sparked off the idea of studying words that come from those mythologies. So while arranging some ideas for this post, Đề changed her mind after reading Bồ’s entry. But instead of digging into Roman religions and mythologies where Janus belonged, this series will feature words that were coined based on the stories or characters in Greek mythologies. These words and stories might be obvious to those who have been learning English vocabulary by studying its etymology; however, to Đề, who is very new to these Greek myths and is remotely familiar with Greek roots in English, this is just fascinating. Apparently, mythologies offered variable explanations of the origin of each word, only the prevailing version will be mentioned here.
In this first post of the series, each of the following words will relate to either eternal punishment or nourishment.
Promethean: daringly creative, defiant of authority
The word signifies the characteristics of the Titan giant Prometheus, who was known as a benefactor of mankind for the things he did. He was assigned by Zeus to form human from water and earth but later became enamoured of men which was beyond Zeus’ expectation. Prometheus and Zeus disagreed on how much power to grant human. Zeus wanted to prevent men from having power and even wanted them to perish. But Prometheus, against Zeus’ will, taught men agriculture, brought to men the fire he stole from Zeus’ lightning. To punish him, Zeus tried to hurt his loved ones, his brother and human. Nevertheless, Prometheus continued to defy Zeus, stole more skills from other gods to give to men. Later on, Zeus punished Prometheus himself by having him tied to a mountain where an eagle could tear his liver every day, which would regenerate overnight. Forever since, Prometheus had to endure the agony of having his liver eaten over and over again. Having said that, the word means boldly creative, in the way that this philanthropist loved and helped human; it also means defiant in the way that he defied god’s might and suffered for men.
Sisyphean: laborious, futile and interminable
This word takes us to the story of Sisyphus, who was not a god, but a king. Being chronically avaricious and treacherous, he was known as the craftiest of men. With the quest for power, he did all it took, including killing guests, seducing enemy’s daughter and even betraying Zeus. However the word Sisyphean does not indicate his characteristics, but the punishment for his deceitfulness. He was forced to roll an enormous boulder up to the top of a steep hill. More than that, Zeus has enchanted the boulder to roll away from Sisyphus just before it reached the top. As a result, Sisyphus was consigned to a useless and frustrating task for the rest of eternity.
Tantalise: to torment or tease with the sight of something unattainable
I bet at one point in your life, you must have been tantalised by something in one way or another, then you know how Tantalus, a half-god and half-nymp felt. One time, when attending a Zeus’ dinner in Olympus, Tantalus stole ambrosia and some secrets of Zeus to give to mortals. He later even killed his own son and served it to the gods in a banquet as a sacrifice. Aware and disgusted by his evil-doing of kin slaying, the gods refused to take the offer and revived his child. Tantalus was later punished by standing in a pool of water with low-hanging fruits above his head. But whenever he stretched out to get the fruits, they would grow out of his reach. Henceforth, he is forever tantalised by the food that he could never have.
Cornucopia: abundance, nourishment, a great amount of something, especially produce
The word literally means “horn of plenty”, originating from two Latin words: Cornu (horn) and Copia (plenty). It was told that the infant Zeus was once sent away to avoid his father from devouring him. From this point ward, there were few versions of the legend, one of which was that while hiding in a cave, Zeus was nursed and fed by a goat, Amalthea. One day, he accidentally broke her horn, and in his regret, Zeus charmed the horn to always be fulfilled with whatever Amalthea wished. Hence the word cornucopia, an eternal abundance of foods. This symbol of a horn with plenty of produce is adopted to Thanksgiving celebration in modern days and is traditionally displayed in the centre of a dining table.