Look for Etymologies on the Tiber

By: | Post date: August 11, 2009 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture

The Magnificent Nikos Sarantakos’ Blog (to take a break from the problematic of Canada and go back to matters Hellenic) has recently unearthed the origin of that fine Greek apophthegm, πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος, “anyone not Greek is a barbarian”. (Which was in fact the original definition of barbarian.) The sentence is absent from Greek literature, though the sentiment certainly is not. In fact it’s commenters Akindynos, π2, and Δύτης των νιπτήρων who worked it out between them, via Perseus and Google Books: Maurus Servius Honoratus, late IV AD, in his commentary on the Aeneid 2.504.

The apophthegm is tossed in casually to argue something rather far off from Greek ethnocentrism (why Priam would refer to Phrygian gold as barbaric in the poem). So Δύτης των νιπτήρων (or as I like to English him, Ya, Diver of Sinks) speculates this was already an established dictionary definition in Roman times, and that’s what’s being cited. π2 wonders if it might not be from a philosophy manual of the Second Sophistic, since they still found something novel and exciting in binary opposition back then.

The use of πᾶς μὴ Ἕλλην βάρβαρος in Modern Greek schooling, first as a corroboration of Greek nationalism, then as a slight embarrassment, is a separate issue, though an issue not a million miles away from the negative definitions of nationhood I’ve been stumbling around.

I’m about to write a post at the Other Place on a Modern Greek word for (we think) dormouse showing up in a Byzantine dictionary, and how at least one Italian classicist utterly ignored Modern Greek in trying to work out what it meant. The dictum for that blunder is, “Look for Latin Etymologies on the Tiber”.

So I decided to sleuth this saying myself.

There’s a smattering of instances online; not as many as you might expect, given this is really a cliche in historical linguistics.

Google Books quickly hones in on a direct and an indirect origin for the saying:

  • Gregory Nagy, Homer’s text and language, 2004, p. 137.

    Palmer once called attention to “the first rule of etymology,” attributed to Franz Skutsch: “Look for Latin etymologies first on the Tiber. …”

  • Refining search: Leonard Palmer,
    The interpretation of Mycenaean Greek texts‎
    , 1963, p. 187:

    there is yet another fundamental principle, which was given pungent expression by Franz Skutsch : ‘Look for Latin etymologies on the Tiber.’

  • He’s citing himself: Leonard Palmer, “The Indo-European Origins of Greek Justice”, Transactions of the Philological Society, 1950, p. 158 fn. 3:

    In this paper I have followed the advice of Franz Skutsch, who once said that Latin etymologies must be sought on the Tiber.

  • That’s the kind of throwaway footnote that does end up a meme. So what did Franz Skutsch actually say? Luckily his Kleine Schriften have been Googlified…

… and what he said is a little less apophthegmatic, and a *lot* cooler. Here’s the Google Book search result: snippet, but it will do. Kleine Schrtiften p. 214, 1914 (posthumous edition):

… daß man besser tut, Spaziergänge am Ganges, am Plattensee und in ähnlichen Gegenden zu unterlassen, bis die Wege am Tiber alle untersucht sind.
It’d be better for people to avoid going for pleasure strolls on the Ganges, Lake Balaton [Hungary], and other such regions, until ALL the pathways around the Tiber have been searched through.

Yeah, preach it!


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