J.M. HUDSON: Humor in Plutarch’s (and Varro’s) Etymologies

Jared M. Hudson (Harvard University, USA)

Ridentem dicere verum: the Power of Humor in Plutarch’s (and Varro’s) Etymologies

According to Plutarch, the Latin word for bread, panis, arises from Greek πεῖνα, “hunger.” Latin spurius, “bastard,” he informs us, descends from σπόρος, “seed.” And the name of one of Rome’s most brutal dictators, it turns out, can be explained by recourse to the Greek συκάμινον: fearsome Sulla reduced—by a few jumbled letters—to the humble “mulberry.” Ἅιδης goes back to ἡδύς, πάντα comes from πέντε, οἶνος from οἴεσθαι: the derivations come thick and fast in Plutarch’s expansive output. Throughout his work, in both the Moralia and the Lives, Plutarch displays a keen and constant interest in etymology and, as is the case with much of Greek (and Latin) word-tracing, his etymologies often meddle with the ludic. Indeed, it becomes hard to imagine that an ancient reader, when faced with countless instances of such verbal conjuring, would not have found many of them humorous. Humor has much to do with intention; but it is also about effect. Previous accounts of Plutarch’s fascination with language and etymology have paid little attention to its humorous or playful aspects—whether because catching the tone of such verbal delving is always a challenge, or because it is still only relatively recently that scholars have begun to approach ancient etymologies emically (that is, rather than as merely a primitive stage along the path towards modern, scientific etymology). Beginning with the assumption that much of Greek (and Latin) etymology can be read as essentially performative—sound-based enactments of a word’s potential, or immanent, meanings, often more of a creatively revelatory manifestation than a historical claim—my paper examines the role played by humor in Plutarch’s etymologies. I argue that Plutarch performs etymologies with an acute awareness of their potential to spin off from playful “unconcealment” into acerbic parody, and that this line is closely connected to his special role as inter-cultural (and, to some extent, -linguistic) interpreter. In particular, my examination hones attention on Plutarch’s distinct approach to Latin etymologies. For, in the cultural and intellectual milieu of the so-called Second Sophistic (“being Greek under Rome”), in which speculation about the dynamic role of languages was widespread (and in which many Latin words were said to develop from Greek ones), a great deal is at stake in determining just how funny, or subversive, Plutarch’s etymologies might have been (Roma < ῥώμη). A concluding section compares Plutarch’s approach to Latin (and Greek) etymologies to that of a Latin etymologist (who often resorts to Greek): the comparably voluminous Roman cultural commentator, M. Terentius Varro.