In December, I wrote a post on the etymology of the word panties, tracing it back to a 3rd-century Greek saint, Pantaleon, whose name I translated as ‘all lion’. The tiniest of discoveries, of course, but a nice little piece of work all the same, or so I felt.
Imagine my chagrin when I recently discovered that Mark Forsyth had included this very connection between underwear and a Christian martyr in his book The Etymologicon. And to make things worse, I must have come across this factlet well before I wrote the blogpost, because I read the book a good while back. Amazingly, the link never even sounded familiar. This may be a case of entertainment-induced amnesia: Forsyth’s books (plural, since I also read his Elements of eloquence) tickle my brain in such a clever and amusing way that it switches to comedy mode and fails to memorise anything much.
Besides chagrin, I also got a nasty shock. His and my etymological explorations yielded the same results but for one thing: the translation of the saint’s name. According to him, Pantaleon was Greek for ‘all-compassionate’ – a far cry from my ‘all lion’, and obviously more befitting for a saint. I immediately felt that I was due to be wrong, because The Etymologicon was, after all, a book and I was just a person. Absurd, I know, utterly absurd. But things need not make sense to upset one.
Having pulled myself together, I delved into the matter. The Greek and German Wikipedias helpfully explained that the saint had two names. His given name was Pantoleon or Pantaleon, depending on which Wikipedia you believe. The other name – accorded to him by God, the German source specified – was Panteleimon, and this is the one that means ‘all-compassionate’. Both names could have produced the word panties, but since we also have pantaloons and French pantalon, clearly Pantaleon was the one that did. And what little Greek I know strongly suggests that this means ‘all lion’.
But even as I was cheering, I carelessly took a peek at the French Wikipedia for further confirmation. What I got instead was another twist to the story. Pantaleon was merely a Latin corruption of Panteleimon, it claimed: meaningless in itself, but misinterpreted by the Romans (and by me) as ‘all lion’. So if this was correct, Forsyth and I would both be in error, but me more so than him.
Fortunately, the French Wikipédistes seem to have got the wrong end of the stick. A lot of other sources are agreed that Pantaleon does indeed mean ‘hole lion’ (ganzer Löwe – the German Wikipedia again) or ‘in all things a lion’ (in alles een leeuw – a Catholic website) or ‘in all things like a lion’ (an Orthodox wiki).
So I seem to have beaten Forsyth after all. Sorry, Mark. We all make mistakes. And I love The Etymologicon all the same.
I have found a number of mistakes in his three books…too bad because I was enjoying them at first. Now instead of reading for pleasure I am fact checking everything.
That’s a pity. Could you give some examples?
Let me say this in his defence:
* In his Elements of Eloquence, Forsyth himself points out that rhetoric is a field with often conflicting terminology, so you might find very different names for certain tropes elsewhere, or the same names for different tropes.
* In his Etymologicon, if I remember correctly, he is very sparing in the use of pesky words like ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ and ‘according to some’. The most interesting etymologies are often uncertain, but you won’t read that here. As a result, you may find very different etymologies elsewhere, but it does not necessarily follow that the other source is right and Forsyth is wrong.
* Books on language, and probably all non-fiction books, usually contain quite a few minor and sometimes some major inaccuracies. As an author, I’ve discovered that regardless of the pains you take, some errors will always slip through the cracks. There is just a lot of information in each book and it’s nigh on impossible to get all of it right.
Oh, what fun words are! And congratulations on beating The Inky Fool. The Etymologicon is definitely on my TBR list.
Thanks, and make sure you do! It’s full of surprises and – mostly 😉 – well-informed and even more fast-paced than Lingo, I would say.
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