, Newburyport, MA


June 10, 2013

Philanderers and philolexics

We are so preoccupied these days with various aspects of sexual conduct and misconduct that a look at the history and meaning of some of the words we use in this connection may not be amiss. The derivation of these words has some intriguing aspects and surprising contradictions. Also noted here are a couple of words with interesting ancestries that aren’t strictly in the same category.

We’ve read much — probably too much — about Mark Sanford (famous hiker on the Appalachian Trail of Infidelity) and all the other politicians and public figures who have been caught “stepping out on their wives” (a colorful expression I thought was local, but is recognized by Messrs. Merriam and Webster). Such people are often called “philanderers,” that is, men who “make love with a woman they cannot or will not marry” ( The curious part of this is that the word is made up of the Greek root “phil —” meaning “love” and “andro” meaning man, so that philanderer is really a lover of men. Sometime after 1685 (the birth year of both Bach and Handel, incidentally but irrelevantly) an author joined the words to create a fictional character “Philander,” apparently supposing the name meant “lover” of women, and the mix-up has lasted to this day.

In this connection, one seldom runs these days into the word “catamite,” and upon encountering it one would probably think it was the successor to dynamite, or something. But when you look it up, it has quite a cultural relevance to some very current issues. “Catamite” is actually a corruption of the name “Ganymede,” a boy whom Zeus selected to be the cupbearer to the gods and made his lover. In the golden age of Greece, it was acceptable if not indeed desirable for upper-class Athenians to have catamites, boys selected from lower classes as sexual playmates (I think the term might be). What a clash with our modern sexual morality!

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