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Take my word for it

It is fascinating to study the history of words, their origins, and how they change over time. But sadly, going into word-roots is becoming rarer by the day, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

columns Updated: Mar 08, 2013 21:48 IST

Going into the roots of words is like entering a cave — sheer fascination. You discover turns and twists, each with the promise of surprise, the hope of discovery. Also, the risk of shock.

A friend referred to two words, the other day, two ‘types’, two extremes — Stoic and Epicure. Their meanings, their examples and behaviour stood before us like jump-up figures from children’s books. A stoic is severe, denying himself all that is pleasurable in life, including pleasure itself.

The epicure believes in affirming, not denying what life has to offer, particularly pleasure. The stoic, if he eats at all, is on a diet of organic foods, unrefined sugar, sprouted beans and whole wheat bread. The epicure chooses what he eats and loves its taste, aroma and texture.

The stoic has divided the waters of the world into those that do good and those that harm. The epicure selects his drink with thought and sipping it, rolls it over and around his tongue to experience its subtleties.

Invariably thin, a stoic looks like he was born in his clothes that have never felt an iron pass over them. The epicure believes attire is meant to do better than just cover limbs.

The epicure laughs, his mouth becoming the jolliest O. The stoic simpers, his mouth never widening beyond a hyphen. The epicure is fun, the stoic a humourless, unsmiling, pinch-faced bore.

Does this mean the stoic is on the side of the poor and the epicure a man of means? Not necessarily; in fact, far from it. The ‘stoical’ people I know happen to be rather wealthy. And the epicures I enjoy the company of, persons of modest earnings.

Ironically, a stoic is a bit of an aristocrat. He may well eat dried raisins out of a crystal bowl, drink his herbal juices out of a silver tumbler. The juice of carrots and paste of almonds do not come from a budget menu. And as for his seemingly simple clothes — they do not come so cheap!

The stoic can be intolerant, the epicure invariably liberal. The stoic can be a fanatic, the epicure invariably catholic. The stoic is likely to have a narrow shelf of books on the same or similar themes. The epicure can own, borrow or reach a vaster world of letters.

The stoic can be pictured chanting, mouth pursed. The epicure can be imagined singing with his soul. Since ‘stoic’ jives, phonetically, with ‘attic’, and ‘ascetic’, it evokes self-denial. Since ‘epicure’ rhymes with ‘manicure and ‘pedicure’, it conjures self-indulgence.

This is as unfair as it is unfortunate. Both, stoic and epicure, are about an attitude to life. And we must salute them for their philosophies. But – and this is about my attitude – I would stop with salutations to the stoic. With the epicure I will want to go on a stroll.

There is, however, or there had better be, something of a stoic and an epicure in each of us. Given the mis-chances of life we need to have the stoic’s ability to forego. And given the opportunities of life, we need an epicure’s talent to experiment.

Stoicism, moreover, is not about an attitude to what one may eat, drink, wear, sing or read. It is also about how we may face the smites of time.

There, stoicism is not an option. It is the only road. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher, was the greatest stoic of all. His Meditations is a work we must all, stoic or not, read. Three sentences from its epigram-like phrases are memorable ;

“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not ‘This is misfortune’, but ‘To bear this worthily is good fortune’.”

“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”.

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
Their examples and meanings apart, where did those words ‘stoic’ and ‘epicure’ come from ?

From Greek, of course. The curious may trail their etymologies with advantage and fulfillment. There are similar words in English, used more as adjectives than nouns, that also come from Greek. These include ‘spartan’, which comes from the name of the ancient city-state of Sparta where austerity and frugality were held up as virtues.

‘Laconic’, referring to a person or a composition that uses very few words , is derived from Laconia, the Greek state of which Sparta was the capital. Apparently, the people of Laconia compressed their speech to few, small-syllabled words and in the process cultivated a dry wit.

There is a wonderful story about Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great and himself one of the celebrated conquerers of history, sending an ominous message to the Spartans of Laconia. It said, “If I enter Laconia, I will flatten it to the ground.”
Laconia replied, laconically... “If.”

‘Sardonic’, referring to “bitter or scornful laughter” is also derived from the Greek name of a plant ‘sardonion’ which, if eaten — if , again — caused facial convulsions not unlike those of a person sneering in bitter, mordant scorn. ‘Cryptic’, indicating a mysterious message or statement is from the Greek kruptikos meaning ‘hidden’.

‘Iconic’, from the Greek ‘eikon’ meaning ‘image’, is used, overused and misapplied so much that we have ceased to think of that word as one that must have a life outside its misuse. We have political icons, cultural icons, sports icons.

In the US, the apple pie is an icon, described neither laconically nor sardonically but ironically as the “contested and poorly defined subject area of cultural iconicity”.

Going into word-roots is however, becoming rarer by the day. Who has the time ? Which reminds me that ‘time’ is kin to Timon, the name of the Greek philosopher who lived 300 years before Christ and was a sceptic.

Which reminds me that ‘skeptic’, is from the Greek ‘skeptikoi’, a school that “asserts nothing”. Which reminds me this column’s word-limit is up.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Mar 08, 2013 21:45 IST