For the first time since the Victorian period, a new English dictionary of Ancient Greek has been published – and it does not spare the reader or modern scholar in a way the Victorians tried to.
Ancient Greece was famously not a reserved place or time, and its language and the stories of the period that have been passed down reflect that. This is where the idea of the Bakkheia (or Roman Bacchanalia) comes from, after all.
Victorian England (1837-1901) on the other hand was famously inhibited (although the table leg myth is just that) and this was reflected in their attempts to tone down some of Ancient Greece’s more “colorful” language.
The last updated English-Ancient Greek lexicon was published in 1889, an abridged version of the 1843 Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon by HG Liddell and Robert Scott. After a 23-year slog, a team from Cambridge University’s Faculty of Classics has now released a brand new lexicon that defines the original words and meanings in modern English, and they didn’t shy away from spelling out some of the more NSFW language Liddell and Scott obfuscated.
“We spare no blushes,” said editor-in-chief Professor James Diggle in a statement. “We do not translate the verb χέζω as 'ease oneself, do one's need'. We translate it as 'to shit'. Nor do we explain 'βινέω as 'inire, coire, of illicit intercourse', but simply translate it by the f-word.” And that's not all. λαικάζω (laikazo), translated in the 1800s rather quaintly as “to wench”, is now defined as to “perform fellatio”, and translated rather bluntly as “suck cocks”.
Very quickly, the team realized it couldn’t just revise and update the last dictionary, as it was too antiquated in design, concept, and definitions. They would have to start from scratch. The task of re-reading most of Ancient Greek literature, from Homer’s Iliad and Oddysey (circa 762 BCE) to the early second century BCE took nearly twice as long as the Labors of Heracles (sorry folks, Hercules is the Roman name).
“It took us over 20 years because we decided that if we were going to do it we must do it thoroughly,” Professor Diggle said.
Other modern updates include avoiding antiquated language that is now considered offensive.
“We don’t call βλαύτη 'a kind of slipper worn by fops' as in the Intermediate Lexicon. In the Cambridge Lexicon, this becomes 'a kind of simple footwear, slipper',” Diggle explained. Kροκωτός (krokotos), defined as “a saffron-coloured robe worn by gay women” in the Victorian dictionary is now just a “saffron gown (worn by women)”.
The complete Cambridge Greek Lexicon, published by Cambridge Press, features around 37,000 Greek words and also tackles tricky items such as the many applications and contexts of verbs in Ancient Greek. In a sample page you can read here, the verb λῡ´ω, meaning loose – to set loose, to loosen a fastening, etc – offers the correct usage for a multitude of scenarios, including when talking about releasing something in return of payment, ie. returning "a slain man's armour (to the enemy)" or when loosening an item of clothing eg. "a woman’s girdle (as a prelude to sexual intercourse)", ensuring your Ancient Greek is perfect wherever the conversation may turn.
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