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Fall 2012

Table Talk

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Nick Papandreou

So I have been making a list of words. If I give you a few can you figure out the governing principle? Here’s three: Rhythm, Zone, Police. No? Cemetery, Story, Planet. Okay. It’s “Greek words in English.”

How much are these worth? Are they worth the three hundred and fifty billion Euros that is Greece’s debt? That is one argument made today in IMF-land by some nationalists who shout: “We gave Europe their language! They owe us!”

Quotes from unknown poets, inspired by the 1821 War of Liberation against the Turks, are back in popularity. Key phrases are yellowed in and circulated over the blogosphere—old soldier to a wealthy man: “My blood gave you your crown…”

In fact, of that massive debt, doubtless an onerous burden (all Latin in that phrase, since the Romans one-upped the Greeks for terms used in finance), a hundred billion is actually financial borrowings of Greeks from Greeks—think pension funds that bought Greek bonds (now worth nearly zilch, a very non-Greek word). So let’s reduce that burden of debt a wee bit, since it is not owed to the foreigners but to the Greeks themselves. This Greek-to-Greek debt surely cancels out the linguistic borrowing element.

Tally now stands reduced.

Is there a word-for-word price? What about Greek origin words that are extremely common in English, like “butter” or “zoo”? Does price vary ac-cording to frequency of use?

There are words and there are words.

Some have a deeper importance and provide greater meaning to us all, words like philosophy and plot and theater. Can you imagine Marx without the dialectic? Literary critics without synchronicity and antithesis? The medical profession without pediatricians and podiatrists, endocrinologists and gynecologists? Shrinks without therapy?

Is there a money-back guarantee if the word doesn’t work for us? What if it gets us into trouble? I recall a very long discussion about philanthropy with my friend Henry Roncali when I was fifteen that lasted for weeks and ended up with my giving away twenty dollars to a homeless man on Yonge Street. Do I get a refund? I recall being accused of being an egoist by a girlfriend—the beginning of the end. My written reply was rather Latinate, however. “You are not at all magnanimous, you are officious…”

What about extremely rare words like hypogynous or apotheosis? A zero price? Who keeps the lexic meter running? Who are the protagonists in this endeavor?

But hold on there. Do English speakers not owe the Italians some sort of linguistic fee? Do we not owe the Germans for the achtungs and verbotens in all those Captain America comic books? And what would we really do without Yiddish, you putz? Mugwump and moose, papoose and moccasin? And the Irish, also buckling under the hard boot of the IMF—with their brogues and their leprechauns…

The Nordics, relatively debt-free, have a say in the debt buyback scheme as well. I would say Wednesday is worth much to me. Squat in the middle of the week, it’s when I have time to think, pause, and write. I think we owe the Vikings about twenty-five billion for that. Although Thursday is a close second, come to think of it, predisposing me to the upcoming weekend as it does.

And the French did their part in bolstering up the English language. They gave us petty and pettiness, art nouveau and la vie française and joie de vivre and vin blanc and le jogging, though I think Italian Prime Minister Monti should tax the French every time they try to monopolize the dictionary of love. (Oh, but the Ancients, they pretty much own the House of Eros, no?)

One psycho-linguistic explanation that I was given to explain Merkel’s stance towards Greece runs as follows: in German the word “debt” (Schuld) also means “guilt.” Thus, indebted Greeks are automatically guilty Greeks.

I could go on. So could you. At the end of the day I think we would all find that the debt of one language to another is pretty much squared away.

Or maybe not.

Maybe when all is said and done, and the linguistic DNA deciphered, the West still owes Greece about fifty billion for use of its language.

But can’t this be balanced out by going the other way around? Do not the Greeks owe a drachma or two for use of their words?

Take ouzo, Henry Miller’s drink of choice. One urban myth (Latin and Greek in that term) claims it derives from an accident: the grappa-like liquid mixed with anise was sent regularly abroad. On the crates were written the words: Per l’uso di… For the use of….

There is also another list: Greek words invented by non-Greeks in English. I don’t know how to price that one. Example: Utopia (for No-Place) was in fact invented by Thomas More, a man well-steeped in the classics. Do the Greeks now owe the Right Honorable Lord Chancellor’s descendants some serious payback?

Another such oddity is the word Disaster—a bad alignment of the stars—from “dis” (negation) and “aster” (star). This word exists in neither ancient or modern Greek, though it is solidly Greek.

“Don’t dis me” might be worth quite a lot, if the meter runs on degrees of cool. Don’t dis me is what the Greeks are saying right now. Because when it comes down to it, even more than getting rid of that despicable debt, even more than claiming that the world cannot abandon the place where it all began (albeit before any of us were alive), today’s Athenians want back one thing: respect.

We are all, American-Greek mongrels like me and pure-bloods of Turkish-Vlach-Ancient origin, grasping for straws, right now, to create the new narrative. Will it be “indebted country wags its hand at the rascally foreigners and absconds”? Will it be “indebted country works hard, shoulders its past and stands tall”?

I prefer the latter. My one-line narrative goes like this: first comes the epic heroism, then the democratic dialogue, and finally we arrive where we must—therapeutic catharsis.

Nick Papandreou, author of A Crowded Heart and Father Dancing, lives in Greece.

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