, Newburyport, MA

June 10, 2013

Philanderers and philolexics

As Good As Your Word
Jonathan Wells

---- — 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!

Have you ever wondered when “gay,” the now commonly used word for same-sex relationships, came into use? Its ancestry can be traced back to the 12th century, when it meant “joyful, carefree, mirthful, or bright.” Five centuries later it began to be associated with immorality, with the connotation of addiction to pleasures and dissipations. In the 19th century it morphed again, taking on a distinctly sexual cast: a prostitute was a “gay” woman and a man with a lot of female partners was referred to as “gay.” The next gradual shift to its present meaning occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, and “gay” was firmly ensconced in its present denotation of preference for the same sex by 1955. Curiously, the noun “gaiety” has retained its 12th-century signification.

The word “meretricious” is a little long and a little obscure, but worth remembering and using. It seems that in Rome a couple of millennia ago, a “meretrix” was a prostitute, a woman who earns, the word having been derived from the Latin word “merere,” meaning “to earn.” Since the ladies of the night or (a quaint phrase) “women of easy virtue” were offering an insincere or counterfeit love “alluring by a show of flashy or vulgar attractions,” the word meretricious — of a or like a prostitute — evolved to cover anything insincere and tawdry.

Scholarly types in some professions are accustomed to attending “symposiums,” which The Free Dictionary (online) defines as “a meeting or conference for discussion of a topic, especially one in which the participants form an audience and make presentations.” The 21st-century attendee at such an event might be surprised to learn that among the ancient Greeks, it was far more than today’s symposium, being “a convivial meeting” not only for discussion, but for music and drinking, evidently of great social importance. And it even involved sex, which I don’t suppose is involved in modern symposia — I wouldn’t know.

The great world is, I am afraid, full of “sycophants,” a fancy word for an unattractive sort of person. It’s a synonym for “toady” or “yes-man” or “bootlicker” or “servile flatterer” or “parasite,” among some other even less attractive terms. Since it is a relatively uncommon three-syllable word, one can get away with using it when the others would be too readily understood. It comes from the Greek sycos, fig, and phanein, to show, The sycophant is therefore “one who shows figs.” In the prudish Victorian days, an etymology for this word was invented to show how proper it was, but all the evidence points to its being derived not from a fruit but from an obscene gesture, the “fig.” In the Old Days, Greek politicians would not use this themselves, but would encourage their followers to harass the opposition with the gestures — hence the politicians’ toadies would be “fig-showers.”

Lesbos is a small Greek island where, I had supposed, the women were for some reason all attracted to each other rather than to the men, but of course, these women have the same sexual proclivities as women anywhere else. The explanation is that the most noteworthy person ever to come from Lesbos was the poetess Sappho, whose works explicitly represented erotic love between women, and while there is a word “Sapphic,” her fame and proclivities came to include the whole island — ergo, “Lesbian.”

So now, when you hear these terms being bandied carelessly about, you can reflect upon their curious origin or evolution, as does


Jonathan Wells lives in Newbury.