Having the Diogenes reader has opened up a brand new world of Greek reading for me. There are scads of easily accessible texts that I can dip into whenever I feel like some random reading when I have time to kill or am tired of working on my more structured reading goals. Occasionally, dipping into to something random leads to a real jewel. This last week I have popped in on Ammonius Grammaticus and his De adfinium vocabulorum differentia, or, better yet, Περὶ ὁμοίων καὶ διαφόρων λέξεων (On similarities and differences of words).[1]

Ammonius: the lexical snob

I was aware of Ammonius because he gets cited in lexicons and histories of Greek lexicography (see the awesome work of Lee). He was an Atticistic grammarian. This work is a lexicon of “proper” usage of different words, categorizing the different meanings between words that look alike, sound alike, or have similar meanings. Ammonius was very prescriptive in his views as testified by the observation that most of the words he discusses which occur in the NT are used opposite to what he says. For example, he argues the following:

μασθὸς μαζοῦ διαφέρει. μασθὸς μὲν γάρ ἐστιν ὁ γυναικεῖος, κυρίως δέ, οἷον μεστὸς εἶναι γάλακτος. μαζὸς δὲ ὁ ἀνδρεῖος, ὡς καὶ ὁ ποιητής φησι (Δ 123) ’νευρὴν μὲν μαζῷ πέλασεν, τόξῳ δὲ σίδηρον’.

These differ: breast and chest. For a breast is of the female, properly, as for instance when it is full of milk. The chest is of the male, as when the poet says, “he drew the string near to the chest, the arrow-head near to the bow

Here he is discussing the difference in meanings of different words for “breast”: μασθός (also μαστός) and μαζός. Per his argument, μασθός refers to a woman’s breast and μαζός refers to a man’s breast. In the NT (which I am here just assuming better reflects actual usage, as others have argued elsewhere), the form μαστός is used for the breast of a man or a woman (Luke 11.27; 23.29; Revelation 1.13). The LSJ lexicon includes the following telling note: “usage contradicts the statement of Gramm. that μαζός is the man’s breast, μαστός the woman’s.” It would appear that Ammonius was devoted to the Classics and finding distinctions in meaning that may (or may not) have been in those texts and arguing that such usages needed to be observed in his day. He was the ancient equivalent to modern English grammarians who still tell people:

  • not to end sentences with prepositions
  • not to begin sentences with because
  • that a double negative equals a positive statement
  • that it is “Whom do you love?” not “Who do you luuuvvv?”

These, as well as other such prescriptions, have long been decided against the grammarians in common English usage. Only educated people in contexts where there is advantage in flaunting education follow them. So with Ammonius. To someone striving to be very “Attic” in their Greek, his list of words and the precise distinctions in meaning would have been useful. Aside from that, his list of words is simply interesting and often proves both enlightening and amusing. This entry I came across falls into the later case

On “boring talk” and “know-it-all talk”

The following entry caught my attention:

μακρολόγος καὶ πολυλόγος διαφέρει. μακρολόγος μὲν γάρ ἐστιν ὁ περὶ ὀλίγων πολλὰ λέγων, πολυλόγος δὲ ὁ περὶ πολλῶν καὶ πολλὰ λέγων.

My highly idiomatic (and slightly cynical) translation of this is as follows:

These two differ: “boring talk” and a “know-it-all talk”. “Boring talk” is droning on about a few things; “know-it-all talk”, by contrast, is droning on about a lot of things.

I simply find these words amusing to consider. If the Ancient Greeks had lots of business meetings with their equivalent of PowerPoint slides, I’m sure there was plenty of occasion for the use of these words for whoever felt inclined to use them. Academic conferences would be the perfect place to make use of them.

[1] Of Course, like most ancient works, it is entirely possible that the author associated with the work did not actually write it and/or that the form we have it in is not what it would have been.