It’s the middle of November, and that means I am now two and a half months into a three year postdoctoral position in Classics & Ancient History at Manchester, funded by the Leverhulme Trust – my official (and very fancy) title is ‘Leverhulme Early Career Fellow’. The working title of my project is ‘The Vocabulary of Offence in Ancient Greek’, which in brief means that I am interested in identifying, collecting and examining what we might think of as Ancient Greek ‘four letter words’ (think ‘*&!#’). Since we don’t have any speakers of Ancient Greek to survey about their reactions to particular words, as we can do in English and other modern languages, a large part of my work in this first year is to formulate a set of principles to allow me to determine just what was offensive, or obscene (or ‘dysphemistic’ perhaps, in slightly more technical parlance) to Ancient Greeks who heard these words. I’ll be looking not just at literary texts like Aristophanes and other comic playwrights, but also ‘subliterary’ written evidence like graffiti, curse tablets and the odd obscene papyrus letter. I’m planning on posting a couple of paragraphs here on the Manchester Classics blog every month with a few musings from my work and food for thought. This will be followed by ‘Obscenity of the Month’, a sketch of an obscene term, what it means and how it was used (please note that these are not intended to be the definitive descriptions, but merely to allow those unfamiliar with this sort of material, or even Classics, the chance to learn something). These will mostly be in Greek, but sometimes perhaps in other languages; everything will be transliterated into English, so the Greek-less reader should not be put off. (And if anyone is encouraged to start learning Greek so they can read the rude bits, that is good enough for me!) Needless to say, this blog will contain material which is offensive, some old and some new.
A lot of the Greek material I’ll be working on as part of this project was gathered together by a former member of the department, Professor David Bain, who was at the University of Manchester from 1971-2001, but died suddenly in 2004 before having a chance to complete his work on it. Classics & Ancient History at Manchester during this period (and in the 1980s in particular) had a reputation for the study of obscenity, and I am somewhat proud to have picked up the torch of the ‘Manchester school’. However, it was not Prof. Bain but one of his contemporaries, Professor Harry Jocelyn FBA (1933-2000), who can be said to be the founder of this school. By an odd twist of fate, I am now occupying what was Jocelyn’s office in the old Departments of Greek & Latin, and in honour of this former Professor whose parquet flooring and ornate plaster ceiling is the envy of many (the stress of moving office in week 5 has been well worth it), I introduce the first Obscenity of the Month, λαικάζω. This word was the subject of a truly masterly article by Jocelyn (‘A Greek Indecency and its Students, ΛΑΙΚΑΖΕΙΝ᾽, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 206 (1980), 12-66), building upon a note on the same word by one of his undergraduate teachers from the University of Sydney, Professor G. P. Shipp (in Antichthon 11 (1977), 1-2). It also features as one of Bain’s Six Greek Verbs of Sexual Congress (CQ, 1991). Emulating Jocelyn’s examination of this word is something to aspire to, although I hope that my personal relationship with the University will be somewhat less fraught than my esteemed predecessor’s.
λαικάζω (lai’kasdō, sounds like ‘lie-caz-dough’).
LSJ (the big lexicon of Greek) gives the meaning of this verb as the wonderful ‘wench’. This is not immediately helpful to us. The verb and other words from the same root (e.g. ‘the one who does λαικάζω’) are found in Aristophanes and other comic playwrights, as well as a on a few pots and fragments of stone from Attica, and several curse tablets from the first few centuries AD from Egypt. Interestingly, it is also found in Petronius in Latin-ised version: ‘frigori laecasin dico’ (42.2). On the basis of an array of evidence, Jocelyn demonstrates that the verb means something along the lines of ‘to perform oral sex on a man’. (As A. E. Housman – proved correct by Jocelyn – put it in a letter to one of the editors of LSJ in 1930, the verb means ‘fellare’: Latin is often the strategy found for defining obscenities if you don’t have the words in English, or would rather not say them.) I’ll leave the readers of this blog to supply their own English term for this.
Next month, a vegetable-based obscenity just in time for Christmas at the request of one of our esteemed Professors of Latin.