Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Word from Mythology: Morphine

The name of the drug morphine takes its name from the Greek god Morpheus, the god of dreams and the illusions we see in sleep; his father is Somnus, the god of sleep. Friedrich Sertürner, a German pharmacist, isolated morphine around the year 1805 (it became commercially available in 1827), and he named it after Morpheus because the drug was sleep-inducing. You can read more at Wikipedia, and you can also read about the etymology of heroin in this post: Heroine and Heroin.

The painting is a detail from a fresco by Luca Giordano showing Morpheus and Night:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Word from Mythology: Hector

Last time I looked at how the Greek name "Mentor" became the English verb and noun, "mentor," and this time, you will see how the Greek name "Hector" becomes the English word "hector."

Hector was a prince of Troy and leader of the Trojan forces against the Greeks in the Trojan War. Homer's Iliad shows Hector having to shout at his troops, encouraging them to face their enemy bravely, and he also had to upbraid his cowardly brother Paris whose kidnapping of Helen precipitated the war. Hector's speeches led to the English verb "hector," which originally mean to shout, encourage, and domineer.

Over time, the English word "hector" has taken on negative connotations, meaning something like "to bluster, to bully," even though Hector is an entirely admirable character in the mythological tradition.

The painting below is "Hector Reproves Paris" by Richard Cook:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Word from Mythology: Mentor

The word "mentor" is widely used in English now, but most people do not know that this is a name from Greek mythology: Mentor. Mentor was a friend of the Greek hero Odysseus, and he also advised Odysseus's son Telemachus. When the goddess Athena wanted to advise Telemachus, she disguised herself as Mentor.

The use of the word "mentor" in English to mean an "advisor" dates to the 18th century. Nowadays you can also hear the word "mentee," which is formed as if "mentor" were a Latin verb, but that is a bit of linguistic nonsense that does not fit the Greek origins of the word at all! The word "mentee" was coined in the 1960s. To fit the Greek, it would be better to talk about a "mentor" and a "telemachus," rather than mentor and mentee. :-)

You can read more about Greek Mentor at Wikipedia, which is also the source for this picture of Mentor with Telemachus: