What the Digamma! 
Posted: 21 March 2016 01:38 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Possible antedating of WTF from 1881?

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Posted: 21 March 2016 03:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Betteridge’s law of headlines strikes again!  Anything’s possible, but this strikes me as straining way too hard for obscenity.  I guess I’m a member of those rarefied circles in which the poem was once well known, since I’ve been familiar with it as long as I can remember; I have always been convinced that the phrase in question was simply a clever stand-in for “what the devil,” and nothing in the linked pieces even begins to shake my conviction.  Lewis Carroll (like Kay Tarrant, who “hated — hated! — smut” and “devoted her life to erasing every trace of it from [Astounding Science Fiction]") was notoriously prudish, so his reaction means nothing.

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Posted: 21 March 2016 05:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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"Though he’d been firmly but courteously told,
Perfect imperfects begin with an E. “

What do you think is meant by this?
Digamma of course would follow E (capital epsilon).

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Posted: 22 March 2016 02:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Factoid of the day: Long after being abandoned as a letter of the Greek alphabet (the Semitic vav or waw having no phonetic equivalent in Greek), digamma was used by the Greeks (and by Romans writing in Greek) well into Byzantine times, to indicate the numeral “6”.  — and (like lh, though with less authority) I do think it might be a bit far-fetched to link it with the big F.  In a very prissy, very scholarly English mouth, which balked at “devil”, it might be used as a learned, in-jokey stand-in for “deuce”, for instance.

Count me among the unlettered many. I’d never heard of Dr. Lester until now. Clearly a very learned gent, and with a delightful touch of whimsy, too here.  Another poem by Lester, about Thucydides, contains the word “suggraphies”. The word appears to be originally Greek. Can anyone tell me what it means?

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Posted: 22 March 2016 02:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I would expect any objections to seeing this as a serious antedating of what the fuck should include at least a WAG at an alternate explanation.

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Posted: 22 March 2016 03:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Another poem by Lester, about Thucydides, contains the word “suggraphies”. The word appears to be originally Greek. Can anyone tell me what it means?

There’s an archaic verb to sugger in the OED, meaning to prompt or suggest, so perhaps suggraphies are suggestions, hypotheses. It fits the context, but it’s just a guess.

I take the above back. It seems that συγγραφή or suggraphy simply means writing. So the poem is saying that had all of Thucydides’ works been lost when the Library of Alexandria burned, we would be better off.

[ Edited: 22 March 2016 06:27 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 22 March 2016 06:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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digamma was used by the Greeks (and by Romans writing in Greek) well into Byzantine times, to indicate the numeral “6”.  — and (like lh, though with less authority) I do think it might be a bit far-fetched to link it with the big F.  In a very prissy, very scholarly English mouth, which balked at “devil”, it might be used as a learned, in-jokey stand-in for “deuce”, for instance.

As a shortening of ’what the digamma digamma digamma’, for example?

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Posted: 22 March 2016 06:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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“Though he’d been firmly but courteously told,
Perfect imperfects begin with an E. “

What do you think is meant by this?

In standard Attic Greek, the imperfect tense has a prefixed ἔ- (e-), traditionally called an “augment.” Homer, writing in an early poetic mix of dialects (primarily Ionic), often used augmentless forms, e.g. λύε (lue) ‘he/she loosed’ for standard ἔλυε; this is a very useful option when you’re trying to fit words into a fixed meter.  He also treated certain words as though they still had the digamma that standard Greek had lost.

Another poem by Lester, about Thucydides, contains the word “suggraphies”. The word appears to be originally Greek. Can anyone tell me what it means?

It’s an idiosyncratic anglicized plural of the Greek word συγγραφή ‘writing,’ which letter by letter reads “suggraphe” but (since γγ in Greek represents “ng” as in “finger") would normally be rendered as “syngraphe” (and the OED does in fact have an entry syngraph “A written contract or bond signed by both or all the parties,” from Latin syngrapha < Greek συγγραϕή).  The famous opening of Thucydides’ History begins: “Θουκυδίδης Ἀθηναῖος ξυνέγραψε τὸν πόλεμον τῶν Πελοποννησίων καὶ Ἀθηναίων...” [Thoukydides Athenaios xunegrapse ton polemon ton Peloponnesion kai Athenaion...] “Thucydides, an Athenian, wrote the war of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians...,” which shows the verbal form συγγράφω [syngrapho] in the aorist (with the augment -έ- and dialectal ξυν- for συν-; note that the augment separates the -n- from the -g-, so that it is written with ν and not γ).  If all this seems impossibly arcane, one should bear in mind that the Lester poems are the innest of in-jokes, written for people who had had to work through and memorize chunks of Homer and Thucydides (which of course was a larger population then than now).

I would expect any objections to seeing this as a serious antedating of what the fuck should include at least a WAG at an alternate explanation.

Beg pardon?  As I said, the standard and obvious explanation is that the phrase in question was simply a clever stand-in for “what the devil.” Note the d- in “digamma.”

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Posted: 22 March 2016 09:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I agree with lh - case not made. I always think of Pope’s verses in the Dunciad when the digamma crops up, where he has the critic Bentley proclaiming

Roman and Greek grammarians! know your better;
Author of something yet more great than letter: 
While towering o’er your alphabet like Saul
Stands our digamma, and o’ertops them all.

The Twickenham edition annotates thus:

“Alludes to the boasted restoration of the Aeolic digamma in his (Bentley’s) long-projected edition of Homer. He calls it something more than letter from the enormous figure it would make among the other letters, being one gamma set upon the shoulders of another. Bentley appears to have reached his conclusions about the digamma as early as 1713 but they were not made public until 1732.”

Just what those conclusions were and why the digamma needed restoring I am yet to know as the Twickenham explains no further. Here’s where my abysmal grasp of Ancient Greek lets me down.

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Posted: 22 March 2016 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Museum Criticum, or Cambridge Classical Researches sheds some light:

The remainder of this section is chiefly occupied in examining the nature of the digamma, that instrument by whose aid Dr Bentley, Mr Dawes and other critics have proposed to work such miracles on Homer’s poetry, to make those verses which for several thousand years had been cripples and had wanted their due complement of feet move as nimbly as if nothing ailed them ......

It all has to do with the early pronunciation of the digamma apparently, a subject hotly debated in the Roman schools of rhetoric and written on by grammarians such as the famed Priscillian and Quintilian, with the cudgels again being taken up in the Renaissance by Erasmus and later scholars. Ah well, at least I see now, albeit through a glass darkly.

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Posted: 22 March 2016 11:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Thank you, Dave; thank you, lh.

Note the d- in “digamma.”

Obvious, indeed. So many euphemisms for cusswords begin with the same letter as the word being avoided:

Damned, darned, durned, dashed, dratted, danged, doggone, dadburned

what the Devil, deuce, dickens, [digamma]

sweet Fanny Adams

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Posted: 23 March 2016 12:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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my abysmal grasp of Ancient Greek

Which Ancient Greek do you boast an abysmal grasp of, aldi? Aeolian? Attic? Mycenean?  Pooh! --- that’s not really profound ignorance; I, for instance, can lay claim additionally to an abysmal grasp of Akkadian, Elamite, and Old Persian --- not to mention Ugaritic.  There’s glory for you!

;-)

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Posted: 23 March 2016 06:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Just what those conclusions were and why the digamma needed restoring I am yet to know

The digamma represented a /w/ sound, hence was a consonant, and there are a number of places in Homer where the meter only works if you restore the missing digamma so that you have two consonants together, producing a “long” syllable to fit the dactyl.  This was often compensated for by turning a short vowel into a long one on an ad hoc basis and claiming it was dialectal.  In my youth I was quite excited by the prospect of an edition that would restore the digammas, and in fact in my Oxford Classical Text edition of the Iliad (1969 reprint of the 1920 third edition, with the preface, or rather Praefatio, in Latin, of course—there is not a word of English in the book apart from the copyright page) you can see penciled-in digammas on the first few pages, before I realized the insuperable difficulties involved.  (I also have wonderful WWI-era editions of the Iliad and Odyssey on super-thin paper so that each epic fits into a slim single volume suitable for carrying into the trenches, but I got those much later in life.)

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Posted: 23 March 2016 06:39 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Thank you, lh! My greatest regret is not studying Ancient Greek at college. I so envy you your ability to read and appreciate the Iliad and Odyssey in the original. Pope’s version of course is one of the great classics of English translation and I love it this side idolatry but at the back of my mind I always hear Bentley’s words to Pope on the work’s publication: “It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer.”

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Posted: 23 March 2016 07:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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“It is a pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer.”

That’s kind of how I feel about Heaney’s Beowulf.

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Posted: 23 March 2016 09:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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That’s one of the main reasons I learn languages—poetry in particular can only be properly appreciated in the original.

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