Issue 14 | ,

Homeric word journeys

by and on October 5, 2019

Few languages have contributed as much to English as Greek has, and few works of poetry have influenced English literature as profoundly as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but the influence of Homer’s language on English has been surprisingly limited. Thousands of English words derive from Greek, and while many of these derivatives are first recorded in the Homeric epics—think ‘music’ (moûsa, Od. 1.1), ‘pathetic’ (páthen, Od. 1.4), and ‘psychic’ (psukhén, Od. 1.5)—only a handful of English words actually derive from Homer. This article is about the journeys those words took on their paths from Homer, at the end of the eighth century BCE, into English today.


Given that ‘mentor’ ultimately derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *men– ‘think’ (whence English ‘mind’), the semantic evolution of ‘mentor’ seems clear enough. But its etymological journey into English is more circuitous than you might think.

Mentor first appears as a character in the Odyssey, where he is described as Odysseus’ trusted companion in Ithaca. He is chosen as one of the guides for Telemachus’ journey to Pylos and Sparta, and from that point forward Mentor is the preferred disguise which Athena takes on whenever she wants to communicate with Telemachus, as she guides him on his way.

‘Mentor’ has appeared as a proper noun in English translations of the Odyssey since the early seventeenth century, but it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that ‘mentor’ entered English as a common noun, thanks to the widespread success of François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque (1699). Fénelon expanded on the Odyssey’s account of Telemachus’ travels, taking Mentor as the hero and mouthpiece for his critique of Louis XIV. The novel was a best-seller in France and appeared in English within a year of its publication. Owing to the popularity of Fénelon’s novel (and Mentor’s prominence within it), Mentor’s name came to be used as a byword for ‘guide.’ Homer made Mentor who he is, but Fénelon made ‘mentor’ mean what it does.


The origin of ‘siren,’ like the creatures it names, is somewhat mysterious. It derives from ancient Greek Seirēn, referring to Homer’s mellifluous enchantress of the sea. Seirēn may in turn derive from another ancient Greek word, seirá ‘rope,’ perhaps in reference to the spellbinding nature of the Sirens’ song. The motif of binding is central to Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens in the Odyssey, when, acting on Circe’s advice, he instructs his crew to tie him to the mast so that he can safely hear the Sirens sing.

Ancient authors reached no consensus on the parentage, number, or location of the Sirens, but agreed on three key strands which have been formative for the word’s meaning in contemporary English. First, the Sirens were always depicted as part-woman; the word was used metaphorically to refer to a monstrous or deceitful woman as early as the fifth century BCE.

Second, the Sirens were consistently represented as producers of alluring song; the first attested use of ‘siren’ in English as a producer of seductive song is in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors. Finally, the Sirens have always had a connection with the sea. Over time, Homer’s seaside singers came to be understood as marine creatures. As Chaucer wrote in The Romaunt of the Rose:

Though we mermaydens clepe hem here,
In English, as in our usaunce,
Men clepen hem sereyns in Fraunce.

Though we call them ‘mermaids’ here,
In English, as in our usage,
Men call them ‘sirens’ in France.

Even today, the French word for ‘mermaid’ is ‘sirène.’ The more common meaning of ‘siren’ today, i.e., ‘alarm,’ originates with a musical instrument invented by the Scottish physicist and conspiracy theorist, John Robison, in the late eighteenth century. Shortly thereafter, Baron Charles Cagniard de la Tour improved the device, giving his tone-producing instrument the peculiar capacity to function underwater. Inspired by this property, de la Tour named his invention after those sonorous sea-creatures of antiquity, and ‘siren’ acquired a new meaning. The machine kept its name as it evolved from an obscure musical instrument to an all-purpose sound-producer.


The title of the Odyssey and the common noun that derives from it ultimately come from the poem’s central character, Odysseus. The actual etymology of Odysseus’ name is disputed, but folk etymologies have been proposed as early as the Odyssey itself; when Odysseus’ grandfather Autolycus visited his infant grandchild, he named him ‘hateful one,’ from the Greek verb form odúsasthai ‘to hate’ (Od. 19.406-9):

My son-in-law and daughter, give him what name I say.
Since I come as one who has angered (odussámenos) many,
men and women alike, throughout the fertile land,
let his name be Odysseus.

The title of Homer’s epic—Odússeia in ancient Greek—was variable in English until the eighteenth century. George Chapman and Thomas Hobbes, for example, both referred to their translations of the Homeric epics as the “Iliads and Odysses” of Homer. While figurative uses of ‘odyssey’ appear in French from the end of the eighteenth century, it wasn’t until the end of the next century that ‘odyssey’ entered figurative usage in English, giving rise to its current meaning: an eventful journey. In Homer’s day, only Odysseus could have had an odyssey; now anyone can.


Though the etymological journey of ‘python’ begins with neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey, the word is nevertheless ‘Homeric’ in the sense that it originates with the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, a poem written in the meter and style of the great Homeric epics, once believed to have been composed by the legendary bard himself. Among other things, the hymn explains how Apollo established his sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Parnassus by slaying Python, the monstrous serpent who lived there.

While the actual etymology of the monster’s name is uncertain, the poem provides an explanation. According to the hymn, Apollo leaves the serpent to rot (púthein) where he died. From this putrefaction came the names both of the monster, Púthōn, and the place, Púthōn or Puthó, commemorated in one of Apollo’s cult titles and in the ‘Pythian’ games, held in his honor.

It might seem strange that a large snake native to the tropical parts of Africa and Asia takes its name with a Greek mythological monster. This was a singular contribution of eighteenth century French zoologist François Marie Daudin. Daudin had wide-ranging interests, publishing books on and naming several species of worms and mollusks, but it was in herpetology—the study of reptiles—that Daudin had his most lasting etymological impact. He named nine genera of snakes, and he drew several names from Greek roots or stories. For instance, he named a genus of vipers Lachesis after one of the Three Fates. As for a new scientific name for a genus of gigantic constricting snakes, ‘python’ must have seemed a logical choice.


The minor Trojan warrior Pandarus has his big moment in book 4 of the Iliad. Having been duped by Athena in disguise, he hits Menelaus with an arrow and sabotages a potentially war-ending truce. It may have been for this act of treachery that Pandarus’ name fell into etymological disrepute, bequeathing to us the English verb ‘pander.’

As the Troy legend continued to be told and retold, new stories developed and new characters rose to prominence. One particularly popular offshoot of the Troy legend was the romance of Troilus and Cressida. In Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato, the lovers are brought together through the help of Pandarus, a friend of Troilus and a relation of Cressida. Homer’s oath-breaker received new life in English with Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, which kept Boccaccio’s Pandarus, but imbued him with sophistic eloquence. Pandarus’ character underwent another decisive transformation in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which portrayed him as a lewd and syphilitic pimp.

By the mid-fifteenth century, ‘Pandarus’ could be used to refer to a pimp or an intermediary in secret love-affairs, and by 1603, a ‘pander’ could be used to refer more generally to someone who “assists the immoral urges of others.” Though the noun has since become obsolete, the verb retains traces of its disreputable descent.


In Homer’s Greek, kûdos meant ‘glory’ or ‘renown,’ particularly that which was won in war. In the Iliad, Diomedes remarks that kûdos will attend Agamemnon if the Achaeans capture Ilios, and Ares sits in kûdos beside Zeus. ‘Kudos’ first appeared in English in 1793, in Robert Southey’s poetic ‘study’ of a cat, in which the narrator recalls having heard a fur coat “Kudos’d egregiously in heathen Greek.” By the mid-nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli could tell his sister that he had been “spoken of with great kudos.”


If you’ve ever read the Iliad, it might come as a surprise that Hector, the great Trojan prince, has been memorialized in English as a braggadocious bully. True, he berates Paris for embroiling the Trojans in an unnecessary war and disparages Polydamas’ sound advice, but surely we should all be ‘Agamemnon-ing’ each other instead?

The verb ‘hector’ derives from ancient Greek Héktōr, an agent noun formed from the verb ékhō ‘hold.’ Hector is the ‘holder’ of Ilios, an etymological connection that Homer and Plato both appear to have recognized. Hector’s name is attested in English from the fourteenth century, but his name wasn’t associated with bullying until the mid-seventeenth century, when a notorious gang of London-based con-artists named themselves ‘the Hectors’ in homage to Homer’s hero.

The Hectors made their first recorded appearance in English in 1652, in a pamphlet entitled, A notable and pleasant history of the Famous renowned Knights of the Blade, commonly called Hectors or, St. Nicholas Clerkes, which complains of the gang’s “flim-flams” and describes their manner of life as one that “consists much in cheat and cousenage, gaming, decoying, pimping, whoring, swearing, and drinking, and with the nobler sort, in robbing.”

In the following year, John Cleveland wrote “To the Hectors,” a poem that describes them as “tame Professors of the Sword.” By the latter half of the seventeenth century, the word was extended from the gang and applied to their nefarious activities more generally, giving rise to the use of hector as a verb. Thus, Charles II of England could say, as Samuel Pepys recorded, “that he would not be hector’d out of his right and preeminency’s by the King of France.”

The Hectors weren’t the only classically-educated gang terrorizing the streets of London in the seventeenth-century, however. In fact, they seem to have modeled themselves on the Tityretus, who took their name from the first words of the Roman Homer’s first Eclogue, Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi (“you, Tityrus, relaxing under the shield of a spreading beech tree”).


Like ‘kudos,’ ‘stentorian’ is borrowed from ancient Greek with little semantic change. The adjective derives from Homeric Greek Sténtōr, the name of one of the Greeks who fought at Troy, formed from the verb sténō ‘moan.’ Stentor was first mentioned in the Iliad, where he appears only once, as a vessel for Hera’s exhortation to the Greek troops (Il. 5.784-6):

Then the goddess, white-armed Hera, stood and shouted
in the guise of brave, bronze-voiced Stentor,
whose voice has the strength of fifty men.

After his brief appearance in the Iliad, Stentor’s powerful voice became proverbial, and the adjective Stentóreios ‘Stentorian’ came into use from the fourth century BCE. The first recorded use of the adjective is in Aristotle’s Politics, where he says that cities cannot function if they’re too large, since no herald could be effective in such a city unless he were truly Stentorian.

‘Stentorian’ is first attested in English in 1605, when Joshua Sylvester translated Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas’ Semaines as Divine Weeks and Works, wherein he promises that his “Stentorian song, | With warbled echoes of a silver tongue, | Shall brim be heard from India even to Spain, | And then from thence to the Arctic wain.”

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