A new two-volume ancient Greek-English lexicon has just been published by Cambridge University. The work of over 20 years, it defines 37,000 words. One might wonder why such a thing might be needed. After all, Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary, with its early-20th-century revisions, has served scholars well since 1843. And isn’t ancient Greek a dead language anyway?
By no means. Scholars constantly broaden knowledge of the language. The later 19th century saw a profusion of Greek texts excavated in Egypt, where the dry sands preserved millions of papyrus fragments – not just literature but bills, letters and even magical spells, full of new usages that are still being studied (not all of this is reflected in the new lexicon). In recent decades, the canon has broadened towards the abundant Greek writing produced under the Roman empire – though, since the new dictionary advances only to the second century AD, it, alas, omits much of this material.
The bounds of acceptability in English, too, have changed. One feature of the dictionaries of a former age is their prudery and sexism. The Oxford Latin Dictionary, for example, translates words pertaining to the female genitals not into English, but into more Latin: “pudendum muliebre”, which means “a shameful thing relating to a woman”. At times, prudery has been compounded by inaccuracy. Take the Greek verb “laikazein” – “to wench” in Liddell and Scott, a definition that in turn seems to demand an English dictionary. (“To frequent the company of prostitutes” is offered.) The new Cambridge lexicon, by contrast, defines laikazein as “to perform fellatio”.
How does one get from “to wench” to “to perform fellatio”? The answer is research. It was a closely argued 54-page article in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society in 1980 that established that laikazein had nothing to do with copulation (which is what Liddell and Scott were getting at with their wenching). The author, HD Jocelyn, noted the passion with which scholars had maintained their allegiance to the mistaken meaning – partly because of the “immense authority reposed in dictionaries”. Classicists had, he wrote, held that laikazein was synonymous with another Greek verb, binein, defined by Liddell and Scott as “coire, of illicit intercourse”. To discover what coire might mean, which is Latin, we must re-enter the lexicographical hall of mirrors and consult the Oxford Latin Dictionary, the 1982 edition of which tells us that it can signify “to have sexual intercourse”. The new Cambridge lexicon swerves to bluntness, defining binein as “to fuck”.
The great poet-classicist AE Housman was right all along, in fact, when in 1930 he wrote – unheeded! – to Henry Stuart Jones, the scholar then revising Liddell and Scott, that he did not think “there is any place where laikazein means wench”. He opined that it meant “fellare”, though certainly not “cunnum lingere”. These particular Latin phrases need no translation. Easy as it is to gently mock the sensibilities of a former age, perhaps future generations will decry early-21st-century comfort with sexually aggressive terms; when, perhaps, it will be time for another dictionary of a “dead” language.