It’s all Greek to me

It's all Greek to me

Clifftop Church in Fira by Kevin Poh on Flickr

A few words in today’s post. First is a word that many people misuse, the second is one that I learned recently and thought may interest you and the third is one with Greek roots that serves merely as an excuse to shoehorn in one of my favourite Flanders and Swann numbers.

Laconic is one of those words that suffers a little from a kind of false onomatopoeia. Said out loud, it seems to resemble slow or lazy speech but instead means speech that is very terse, using few words, or perhaps ‘Spartan’. Spartan is the best description for it, because laconic comes from being an attribute of the people of Laconia, the Lacademonians. Laconia (Lakonia) still exists today, on the southern tip of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. The administrative capital has a name that will doubtless sound familiar to many, even if only for the lurid Zach Snyder retelling of the story of the battle of Thermopylae – that’s  right: This Sparta! The Spartan people were famed throughout the Ancient Greek world for being very conservative with their words. I think my favourite illustration of this is the famous exchange between Philip II of Macedonia and the Spartans, following Philip’s near-total crushing of southern Greece. Philip sent a message saying “If I invade Laconia, you will be destroyed, never to rise again”, to which Sparta sent a one-word response: “If”. Philip realized he had left the gas on at home and never bothered even trying to invade.

Had the Greeks had TV in those days, they’d have been watching Thermopylae play out on the news, with a small band of other news rolling along the bottom of the screen, keeping them updated with the rise and fall of the Drachma and what Gorgo and Leonidas were wearing this season. This little band of rolling news has a name, I recently found out. In the TV business it occupies what’s referred to, unsurprisingly, as the “lower third” of the screen and is known as the Chyron (with a hard ‘ch’, as in ‘chorus’) . Apparently first used as far back as 1970, it’s hardly a classic Greek word – in fact, it’s not really Greek at all. Not to be confused with Chiron, the mythological Centaur of mythology, the name Chyron is simply a result of the name Chiron already being registered as a trading name in the US. They simply changed the Y for an I. Nobody seems to know how the first use of the early name Chiron came about. If you know, please share the information with the group.

Finally, I want to reassure you that there will be very little mention of difficult science concepts in future writings – unless that’s what you wanted, in which case, I apologize. However, the word in question here is thermodynamics, one I chose, as previously mentioned, as an excuse to subject you to some Flanders & Swann and a little unrequested education. Easy enough, I thought – Greek words therme and dynamis – heat and power, a quick summary and job done. It wasn’t too long before I discovered what I had let myself in for. It seems that nobody can really decide how the word we know today came about. What everyone seems able to agree on is that in 1824, the French engineer Sadi Carnot was looking into a theorem similar to the ones governing mechanics, in which heat was defined as a state of vibration. This flew in the face of previous theories, all of which hinged upon the fact that heat was a constant, and indestructible substance known as caloric. Carnot published the snappily titled Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire, describing what he called ‘heat engines’. His work went on to form the basics of thermodynamics as it is known today.

Lord Kelvin (he of Kelvin’s Law) twice used the hyphenated for ‘thermo-dynamic’ in published papers, although it’s unknown what prompted him to do so. The phrase was picked up by Scots engineer William Rankine, who appears to be among the first to drop the hyphen. By 1868, some 34 years after Carnot’s original postulations, the unhyphenated phrase seemed to be here to stay. Although often attributed to German physicist Rudolf Clausius, who wrote the textbook on thermodynamics (no, really – it’s called Mechanical Theory of Heat), it’s clear he never actually used the term. While the German Thermodynamik would have been legitimately available, he preferred “mechanische Theorie der Wärme”. Of course, once Germans started using thermodynamics as the go-to word, it was pretty much set as the standard term. The lesson to be learned here is; never assume something will be easy. Nonetheless, it still gives me the opportunity to subject you to the wonderful Flanders & Swann ditty that should tell you all you need to know about thermodynamics and more. Enjoy.


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