The Corinthian Spirit

After writing about the term bohemian recently, I  realisd that there are a few other cases in English of adjectives relating to certain regions having a particular meaning.

The Corinthian spirit, for example, referring to a sense of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct in amateur sport. Corinthian is derived from Corinth, now a Greek municipalty, and in ancient times an important city-state. As was the case with bohemian though, the story behind this phrase is a little complex, and it doesn’t refer directly to Ancient Corinth, as one might expect.

The expression actually comes from the old English football club Corinthians F.C, based in London and operating between 1882 and 1939. The club are credited with spreading the popularity of football worldwide, and were known for their ethos of sportsmanship, fair play, and playing for the love of the game, and not for money. They based their style of play based on a sense of ideal gentlemanly behaviour. They believed, for example, that a true gentleman would never deliberately commit a foul. If they were awarded a penalty, for example, their player would deliberately kick it over the bar, assuming the opposition team’s foul hadn’t been intentional. Equally, if they conceded a penalty, their goalkeeper would lean against the goalpost and allow the other team to score.

Their name was indeed derived from the Corinthians of Ancient Greece, though with a few steps along the way. Ancient Corinthian men were known for their wealth and profligacy, and by the Elizabethan era, the term Corinthian had come to refer to a roguish gentleman. In the late 18th century, the term was used to refer to a group of aristocrats who dedicated themselves to a life of sport and hedonism. By the 20th century, the hard-living, hard-partying aspect of the term had been lost, and the Corinthians club adopted the name due to its associations with gentlemen and the amateur pursuit of sport.

While reading this, you may also have thought of the adjective spartan, meaning simple, disciplined, and without unnecessary frills or luxury. This is also of course derived from another Ancient Greek city-state, Sparta, whose people were famed for their indifference to luxury and comfort. The term comes directly from this reputation, without any complicated shifts in meaning over the centuries. Quite a spartan origin, if you will!

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