Greek myths and eternal punishments

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.

Learn more from Greek mythologies =>>

Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, (1868). Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sisyphus by Titian, Spain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Roman goddess Abundantia with a cornucopia, by Rubens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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January and Contronyms

Say hi to Janus.

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Janus is an ancient Roman god. His occupation is quite unimpressive. He keeps the gate of Heaven, so he becomes the god of…doors and gates. Now despite doing a mundane job that has nothing to do with the start or the change of anything, Janus the security guard is often associated with beginnings and transitions. He is depicted with two faces; one looking back to the past and one looking forward to the future. January is named after this dude. The concept of him being two-faced is now interpreted as one retrospecting on the year gone by and the other facing forward to the coming year.

Janus doesn’t mind very much that his name is borrowed to mark the first month of the Gregorian calendar, along with his fellow cool gods such as Mars, the god of war for March, Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty for April, Juno, the chief Roman goddess for June, etc. After all, he is a deceptive two-faced dude, who knows for sure what he thinks or believes. The term Janus-faced is often used to characterize people who are deceitful and duplicitous. That isn’t all, the western culture has milked his name to the last bit. A whole class of words in English known as contronyms are also called Janus words. Analogously, Janus words are contrasting and two-faced.

A contronym is one single word that consists two contradictory meanings simultaneously. To name a few, let’s say we dust furniture to remove dust particles, but we also dust cookies with powdered sugar to spread particles over it. If one overlooks something, he either fails to notice it or carefully supervises it. To cleave to something means to stick to it; conversely, cleave can also mean to split apart. Likewise, sanction as a verb means to authorize in some context and to penalize in others; as a noun, a sanction is sometimes a punishment, other times an approval. We clip things together to attach them but when we clip a photo from a magazine, we cut it out. Oh, and did you know that literally now means figuratively? As in “OH my god, that movie LITERALLY blew my head.” Nope, there wasn’t any explosion from that upper part of the body that contains the brain. “Literally” in this context no longer defines a matter in its literal sense; it is, in fact, used as a hyperbole to emphasize exaggeration.

I’ll end this post with a very common contronym, finish. Say, you are putting a finish on the surface of something, you are perfecting it, burnishing it so it comes out as complete as a whole. However, finish can also mean to destroy, to annihilate, to exterminate until nothing is left.
And this post is finished.

Bồ.