Tyrant

When reading about the history of Sicily, especially the period of Greek colonies here (around the 5th century BC), the tyrant Theron is mentioned quite a lot. He must’ve been a pretty bad egg, you might be thinking, to be called a tyrant, you might think. Well, not necessarily…

Tyrant nowadays has entirely negative connotations in English, usually referring to cruel or despotic absolute rulers, often those who have gained power as a usurper. This has a very direct connection to the Ancient Greek word tyrannos, from which it’s derived, which also generally referred to someone who usurped power. In Ancient Greece though, the term was a neutral one, for a long time at least.

Theron, for example, gained power in Acragas (modern-day Agrigento) in Sicily in 488 BC, a major power during the heyday of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece), a name given by the Romans to the Greek colonies in the south of modern-day Italy in the 5th century BC.

Theron apparently came to power by using public funds allocated for a temple-building project to hire bodyguards. Politics never really changes!

tomb

Close-up of the apparent tomb of Theron, near Agrigento

Because he came to power in this way, he earned the title tyrant, but it seems he wasn’t a particularly unpopular ruler. It might seem odd to us to see the word tyrant used in a neutral way, but I guess 2,500 years ago it wasn’t so strange for somone to seize power by force. And as long as you were a just ruler afterwards, people didn’t really mind that much.

Still, over time, the term came to be used in an exclusively negative way. Even by about 100 years after Theron took power, Plato and Aristotle were using the term to refer to cruel and unjust rulers who had usurped their power, and as democracy became more prominent, the negative meaning stuck.

And now of course we only use it in extreme cases for rulers who use corrupt means to gain control, and show disdain for those they’re meant to serve. Can’t think of anyone like that…

Uranus

Heh heh: Uranus!

No other celestial body has been so generous to the English language in terms of puns as Uranus, owing to its pronunciation. But you’ve probably noticed that there are two common pronunciations: Uranus (/jʊərənəs/, emphasis on the first syllable), and Uranus (/jʊreənəs/, emphasis on the second syllable: look, this is the one that sounds like your anus). Which one is correct? Continue reading

Time

I don’t have enough time to finish this project!

What time is it?

I’ve been to France four times.

Three times two is six.

Those four sentences are all pretty simple, aren’t they? They’re the kind of sentences you might use in everyday situations without thinking about them. But look more closely at that word they all have in common: time. Continue reading

Coquette

This morning I passed a touristy apron at a stall here in Palermo. It featured a map of Italy with different regional types of pasta. I spotted the word reginetta (beauty queen/young queen). I’d never seen the word before, but assumed it was a diminuitive form of regina (queen), as the suffix -etta is often used as a (usually) feminine diminuitive form in Italian.

Just like the -ette suffix in English, borrowed from French, and found in words like cigarette, etiquette, majorette, among many others. Just after seeing reginetta though, a particularly interesting example came to mind: coquette. Continue reading