A Decimating Blow

If you’re a regular reader, you might remember me writing about the verb to decimate some time ago. The gist was, to decimate had never been used to mean destroy or reduce by 10% in English, so it was incorrect and unjustified to “correct” people using it to mean to devastate or kill a large proportion of a group of people.

And I still basically stand by that assertion. Basically… Continue reading

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…

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

A Split Infinity

I was listening to Radiohead this afternoon, specifically their most recent album, A Moon Shaped Pool (it’s pretty good).

I’d noticed, as I often have before, the pun in the lyrics of the song “Decks Dark:” in split infinity. A play, of course, on split infinitive, but it made a question come to my mind that had never occurred to me before: what’s the link between the words infinity and infinitive? Continue reading