A Greek dictionary fit for “translators of filthy comedy”

July 27, 2021 by Alison Tunley

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This blog is partial to a bit of ripe language, as discussed in relation to Emma Byrne’s book Swearing is good for you, and all linguists love a good dictionary, so here we combine these passions with a look at a new English dictionary of ancient Greek.

A Greek dictionary fit for “translators of filthy comedy”

Cambridge University Press published its Cambridge Greek Lexicon in April this year, the culmination of a lexicography project spanning almost a quarter of a century. The original idea for a new Greek dictionary came in 1997, with late scholar John Chadwick proposing an update to the classic 1889 reference work An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, which was authored by Henry Liddell (better known as the father of Lewis Carroll’s Alice) and Robert Scott. However, what was initially conceived as a mere update soon grew in scale as the project team determined that the original work was “too antiquated in concept, design and content”. The team realised they would be better off starting from scratch and the final edition contains around 37,000 entries written by 90 authors who, between them, undertook the mammoth task of re-reading and re-analysing “most of Ancient Greek literature” in search of more accurate definitions.

The Cambridge Greek Lexicon aims to appeal to specialist scholars and Classics students alike. It has attracted particular attention for its use of contemporary language and a refusal to gloss over terms that the Victorians found offensive.

As editor James Diggle says, the new dictionary “spares no blushes”. However, the driving motivation is clarity rather than offence. Mary Beard describes how some of the original definitions in Liddell and Scott “didn’t mean much to modern students”. So, the new dictionary replaces the mysterious “ease oneself” with the unequivocal “shit”, while the euphemistic “to wench” is dropped in favour of calling a spade a spade with “perform fellatio”.

The problem of puritanical dictionaries is not unique to Greek it seems. Comedian and classicist Natalie Haynes recalls her own frustrations as a school pupil translating the Roman poet Juvenal and discovering that “some of the language is so filthy it didn’t appear in our dictionaries”. When she returned to studying Juvenal at university, excitement mounted at the prospect of finally finding out “where the masseur was putting his hand”. But once again, she was to be disappointed, “the Latin was so shocking that the dictionary offered no definition in English: instead, they translated it into Greek.” On consulting the relevant entry in the giant Greek dictionary, Haynes found it offered only the Latin. Her solution involved an interesting translation strategy “my previous rule of thumb with Aristophanes was to assume any word I couldn’t identify meant vagina, and take it from there”.


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