Lost without words

Apart from wreaking havoc across the globe, the COVID-19 crisis has spawned a host of new jargon, from expressions such as ‘social distancing’, ‘herd immunity’ and ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘PPE’ (Personal Protective Equipment), and ‘The Great Lockdown’. At the same time, a lot of the vocabulary that we have been using to describe our current situation has much older roots, in ancient Greek and Latin. A closer look reveals that we would be lost for words without these two ancient, yet remarkably enduring, languages.

Let’s start with the most obvious term. Long before the World Health Organisation (WHO) labelled this virus COVID-19, we knew it simply as ‘coronavirus’. Corona is Latin for a ‘wreath’ or ‘crown’ while virus means ‘poison’ or ‘venom’. When viewed under a microscope, this virus appears to have a corona, like the glowing, gaseous corona that surrounds the sun, hence ‘coronavirus’.

On 11 March the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a ‘pandemic’. This word comes from the Greek pan– meaning ‘all’ and demos meaning ‘people’. The word pandemic denotes a disease that is prevalent worldwide, whereas an epidemic, from the Greek epi– meaning ‘upon’ and demos meaning ‘people’, denotes a disease that affects mainly one community.

In response to the pandemic, we have witnessed ‘chaos’ and ‘panic’ buying. ‘Chaos’ is a peculiarly appropriate term for the scenes that took place in supermarkets worldwide with frantic shoppers, empty shelves and desperation to provide for one’s most basic needs. The term comes from the Greek khaos meaning a ‘vast empty chasm’ or ‘void’. It also refers to the primordial state of the universe. ‘Panic’ comes from the Greek panikos meaning ‘of or belonging to Pan’. Pan was the Greek god of shepherds, hunters and wild places. With the torso of a man, and the horns, legs and tail of a goat, Pan inspires terror and panic in those who encounter him. I am pretty certain that I saw Pan standing in the toilet paper aisle of my local supermarket a few weeks ago.

As rates of ‘transmission’ have increased, we have been warned to ‘isolate’ and to socially ‘distance’ ourselves from others. ‘Transmission’ comes from the Latin trans- meaning ‘across’ and mittere meaning ‘send’, so it is no wonder that we are being careful about what we send (and receive). ‘Isolated’ comes from the Italian isolato, which comes from Late Latin insulatus meaning ‘made into an island’, which comes from the Latin insula meaning ‘island’. ‘Distant’ comes from the Latin dis– meaning ‘apart’ and stare is to ‘stand’. To stand apart and create an island around oneself is a pretty neat summary of the Australian Government’s advised response to COVID-19.

As we now know, COVID-19 can cause ‘pneumonia’, a type of lung inflammation, so named from the Greek pneumon meaning ‘lung’. For some, this condition is ‘fatal’, from the Latin fatum, meaning ‘that which has been spoken, declared, predicted’. Others seem relatively ‘immune’ to the full implications of COVID-19. Paradoxically, the word ‘immune’ comes from the Latin in- meaning ‘not’ and munis ‘ready for service’.

Meanwhile, the desperate search for a ‘vaccine’ continues. If you tried to explain this to a citizen of ancient Rome, he would be a bit perplexed because vacca is the Latin word for ‘cow’ and vaccinus means ‘of or from cows’. He might scratch his head and hand you a cup of milk or a nice piece of farm cheese. It turns out that scientists in the late 18th century used the cowpox virus to treat smallpox, hence the term ‘vaccine’ from the Latin vaccinus.

As The Great Lockdown came into effect and national economies slow, it is hard not to view the situation as a ‘catastrophe’, from the Greek kata– meaning ‘down’ and strophe meaning ‘turning’. This year is being labelled a ‘disaster’, meaning (literally) a year ‘without a star to guide us’ from the Latin dis-, a prefix that expresses negation, and astrum meaning ‘star’.

Even in these unprecedented and difficult times, there is hope. Unexpectedly, this is reflected in the very terminology being used to describe it. The word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek krisis meaning ‘decision’. This period is not only a turning point in history – it is also a time to make (good) decisions. Similarly, the word ‘cataclysm’ comes from the Greek kata- ‘down’ and kluzein ‘to wash’, hence kataklusmos ‘deluge or flood’. Floodwaters recede, deluges pass and the sun will reappear. We are going to get through this. Even the term ‘apocalypse’ isn’t quite as bad as it seems because it comes from the Greek apo– meaning ‘un’ and kaluptein meaning ‘cover’, so apokaluptein is ‘to uncover, reveal’. It remains to be seen what this situation will reveal about humanity: perhaps new and stronger bonds between individuals, communities and nations, perhaps a new commitment to the planet we live on, perhaps some revision of our values and priorities. For every act of selfishness we have seen or heard about, there have also been acts of kindness: a testament to the good in humanity.

Times like these prompt us to ask ‘what does it all mean?’ I may not have the answer to that question, but I am pretty certain that it all means something in Latin or Greek.


Header image: The Hippocratic Oath in Greek and Latin published in Apud Andreae Wecheli heredes (Frankfurt, 1595) (Source: Wikimedia Commons).



What use is Classics?

Just a few months ago, we were sheltering inside our home waiting for toxic smoke to clear from the air and the threat of bushfires to pass. Now, we find ourselves sheltering inside our home watching the Covid-19 crisis spread its shadow across the globe. It has been a frenetic and worrying time: pulling the children out of school, setting up home offices, packing up workplace offices, watching the supermarket shelves empty, learning how to teach, work and study remotely.

As I sit down with a cup of tea to take a breath and read the latest tweets, I see the headline “Classics Will Not Save Us” (1). In the author’s own words, she writes about “the (limited) role of the Classics during this time, the instructive incomparability of the coronavirus, and the legacy of the East-West binary”. I read the attached article with interest. Judging by the comments on Twitter, the article has been welcomed. But Yung In Chae’s article raises more questions for me than it answers.

The main question being: what use is Classics in times like these?

I am reminded of a little story from long ago. A famous professor attends an important public meeting and is asked to interpret an omen. The professor is stumped and cannot think of an appropriate interpretation. He goes home, waits for nightfall, goes out into his garden and prepares a noose from which to hang himself. His slave intercepts him and berates him with the following words:

“Master, where is your philosophy? Where is your pride in your education? Where is your teaching about self-control? Have you become so slack-hearted and irresponsible that you rush toward death, ready to forsake all the pleasures of life by hanging yourself? Stop and think about it, master?” (2)

The point is that like the professor in the story, classicists (like everyone else) have found themselves suddenly in a crisis (and one for which our education gave us no explicit preparation). Nonetheless, we have a responsibility not to fall prey to the automatic reactions that this sort of crisis can provoke (and has provoked in many): the crippling despair, the supreme selfishness, the panic buying, the total loss of self-control, the slack-heartedness and unwillingness to take responsibility. We have to, as the slave in the story reminds us, draw upon and live by the precepts of the classical philosophies and teachings and precepts that we have spent so many years studying and writing about. Now is the time to stop and think, to be moderate, to not let fear dominate our rationality and our actions. We must put all of our self-knowledge into play and be the best we can be even as this crisis unfolds. Where our training and critical faculties fail us, we must be honest, and either adopt a policy of good sense or defer to the better judgement of others.

My second point is that we are not just ‘classicists’ – we belong to the wider discipline of the humanities. The Latin word humanitas is the key to unlocking an entire thought-world referring to ‘the qualities, feelings, and inclinations of mankind.'(2) If we are representatives of ‘humanitas’, as our professional titles attest, then we have a responsibility to strive to exemplify the best of humanity even amidst this crisis. How can we incorporate humane and gentle conduct towards others (humanity, philanthropy, gentleness, kindness, politeness) in all our dealings, whether with checkout assistants, work colleagues, call centre workers, schoolteachers, family members or those in profound need? Secondly, how can we demonstrate ‘mental cultivation befitting a person (liberal education, good breeding, elegance of manners or language, refinement)’? We must continue to teach, and model best teaching practice, to share our knowledge with others and keep learning.

I understand that it is incredibly irritating when classicists point out ‘banal equivalencies’ between this Covid-19 crisis and plagues of ancient times. But the comparison need not be banal. Death and plague were real, lived experiences for people in the classical world as much as this virus is a real, lived experience for people today. The peoples of ancient Greece and Rome were so intimately familiar with grief, loss and suffering that they have bequeathed to us some of the most poignant, touching and supremely beautiful testimonies of that grief, not only in their literature but in their art and sculpture.


Marble grave stele of a little girl 

I have contemplated this funerary stele many times and it never fails to affect me. This depiction of a lost daughter is so sweet, and tender, and so utterly moving that it seems criminal to deny the experience of grief and loss lived by her parents and the commonalities between that grief and the grief of any parent, of any period in time, anywhere, for any reason.

Lastly, I want to add a word or two about unity (instead of disunity). One of the many extraordinary things about this crisis is the way in which this hideous virus is transcending boundaries. It pays little attention to the differences between East or West, young or old, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, first world or third world. Its primary motivation is simply to spread as far and wide as possible. The only way we will beat this virus is to look past divisions (especially artificial ones) and draw upon our common humanity – love and care for one another, consideration and thoughtfulness, watchfulness and mindfulness.

The last word goes to one of the great Classics – which turns out to be right on point:

“Come, save us all,

save all that is polluted by this death.

We look to you. To help his fellow-men

with all his power is man’s most noble work.”

Sophocles, King Oedipus (5)


Perhaps Classics does have some help to offer after all.

Stay safe and well everyone – best wishes to all.

Aesop’s fox.


(1) Yung In Chae, ‘Classics Will not Save us’, E(i)ditorial March 2020: https://eidolon.pub

(2) Ch. 81-86, The Life of Aesop (transl. by L. M Wills in The Quest of the Historical Gospel, Routledge, 1997).

(3) http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059%3Aentry%3Dhumanitas

(4) https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/252890

(5) E. F. Watling (transl.), Sophocles: The Theban Plays, Penguin, London, 1953.