Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's all Greek to Me

Who said that being stuck at an overly-long red light could not be an educational experience? Thanks to that red light I learned something I didn't know before, and I thought I'd pass it on.

While waiting at the red light at the exit from the ShopRite plaza I had nothing to do but stare ahead. Across the road from the exit is a large cemetery flanked by a small apartment complex. There is new construction being done in that area, although it's not absolutely clear whether it's the cemetery being expanded or the complex. What got me thinking, however, were the trucks parked on the road in front of the construction area. Emblazoned on the side were the words "Thesaurus Construction Corp."

That was my first blink. Someone named a company for a book of synonyms? As the light turned green I continued thinking about the name. I was pretty sure it was a Latin word but enough of the spelling might also make it a Greek word. And I wondered what meaning that word might have that I didn't know and that was different from the "common knowledge" definition so that someone would choose to name a company using it.

Once home I did some research. First, the company, based in Brooklyn does indeed have an owner with a Greek name. So what might thesaurus mean to someone of Greek extraction? The following is what I found (thanks to Websters Dictionary).

The word "thesaurus" is derived from 16th-century New Latin, in turn from Latin thesaurus, from ancient Greek θησαυρός thesauros, meaning "storehouse" or "treasury" (and thus the medieval rank of thesaurer was a synonym for treasurer). This meaning has been largely supplanted by Roget's usage of the term. [Note: this is how we get our English word "treasure": Middle English tresure, from Old French tresor, from Latin thsaurus, from Greek thsauros.]

Thesaurus (thêsauros). The Greek term for a room in which all kinds of objects, provisions, jewels, etc., were stored; hence a treasury or treasure-house. In ordinary life the underground store chambers, circular vaulted rooms with an opening above, similar to our cellars, were thus named. The same name was given to treasure-houses which each State maintained within the precincts of Panhellenic sanctuaries, as repositories for their offerings to the gods. Such were those at Olympia and Delphi.

The subterranean tombs, shaped like beehives, and of a construction dating from remote Greek antiquity, which have been found in various places, have been wrongly described as “treasure-houses. ” The most celebrated of these are the so-called thesaurus of Atreus at Mycenae (see Cyclopes; Mycenae), and that of Minyas at Orchomenus (see Trophonius). The latter is only partly, the former wholly, preserved. The ground-plan of these structures is circular, and consists of one enclosed room with a domed roof, constructed of horizontal layers of massive stone blocks, projecting one over the other. This circular chamber was used probably for service in honor of the dead. The actual resting-place of the body was a square room adjoining. The large room at Mycenae is fifty feet in diameter, and about the same in height. It consists of thirteen courses, the uppermost of which was only a single stone. It was decorated with hundreds of bronze plates, the holes for the nails being still visible.

For a teacher of English a thesaurus, modern meaning, is certainly a treasure store of language and a place where words may be said to be buried. And now I know why Roget used the term to title his work.

I normally don't consider a trip to the market as an educational experience of the higher kind. Live and learn.


Jack Steiner said...

A thesaurus is a wonderful tool for a writer as well.

JS said...

I think you mean:

A thesaurus is a prodigious implement for a wordsmith additionally.

Abba's Rantings said...

"I was pretty sure it was a Latin word but enough of the spelling might also make it a Greek word."

i would have assumed greek because
a) the infix "saur" is greek (but what does lizzard have to do with anything?)
b) it (and not latin) has a voiceless dental fricateve "th," i.e., theta. (it's in hebrew also, although not used anymore by most people)

interestingly, these various uses of treasure/treasury/thesauris/etc. is in other languages as well. note that in hebrew אוצר means treasure and treasury, and is likewise used for dictionary/thesaurus/vocabulary (as in אוצר מלים)

Abba's Rantings said...

ok in hebrew it also has the meaning of a cellar or general storage quartrs