Saturday, October 29, 2016


In 1960, Warren Cowgill theorized that the strange, un-Indo-European οὐχί, from which the modern όχι is derived, stems from an early form of proto-Greek: “ne hoyu kwid,” a double negative like the French “ne….pas..” meaning: “not in this lifetime.”

The Greek attitude to the negative is thus subtle and nuanced, given than it confers a temporal quality to the absolute; it is given a duration, whether this is the span of a person’s life or beyond. As such, the Greek OXI, by its very nature, proclaims that it is by no means immutable, and is subject to change and review, depending on seasonal availability and a host of other factors affecting supply.

This is the reason why, during the crucial points in Greek history in which a negative was offered, it never actually took the form of the word OXI. Take for example, the exhortation by the invading Persians to the Greeks to lay down their arms, just before the battle of Thermopylae. Rather than a straight negative, Spartan King Leonidas, offered instead, an aorist active participle in the perfective aspect: Μολών Λαβέ, meaning, Peter Russell Clarkean fashion, “Come and Get It.” The Persians duly did so, proving Leonidas right in a manner that could not have been possible, if his response had been a mere OXI.

A similar Μολών Λαβέ was offered to British colonial troops by EOKA second in command Grigoris Afxentiou, when, cornered in his hideout near Machairas Monastery in Cyprus, he was asked to surrender. The civilized British proceeded to set fire to his hideout and roast him to death, corroborating Afxentiou’s assumption that they would not take a mere ‘no” for an answer.


Byzantine OXI’s on the other hand, are incredibly long winded, being full of sentences that self-embellish, only to break themselves upon the shores of their own classical allusions as their contrived structure irrigates the placid fountains of their syntax. Thus, when enjoined by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II to surrender Constantinople to him, the last Emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos, deigned not to answer monolectically. Instead, where a simple OXI would have sufficed, the Emperor responded: “Giving you though the city depends neither on me nor on anyone else among its inhabitants; as we have all decided to die with our own free will and we shall not consider our lives.” Some historians posit that the Empire gained an additional two days of existence as the Ottoman dragomans attempted to decipher just what it was that the Emperor meant.

Equally loquacious, but infinitely more poetic, was the form of OXI offered to the Turks by the hero of the Greek Revolutionary War Athanasios Diakos. By the time of his martyrdom, Diakos was already as seasoned naysayer, legend maintaining that he responded to the amorous proposals of a Turkish officer, visiting the monastery in which he was serving, not with a simple ‘no,’ but rather, by the physical act of killing him. Thus, when captured and encouraged to spare himself by embracing Islam, Diakos, instead of a dry “OXI,” was able to immediately offer up a negative of Palaeologian length, in perfect 15-syllable demotic form, without even flinching: “Go, get lost, you apostates and your religion. I was born and Greek, I shall die a Greek.” ("Πάτε κι εσείς κ΄ η πίστις σας μουρτάτες να χαθείτε. Εγώ Γραικός γεννήθηκα, Γραικός θέλ΄ αποθάνω....) Significantly, he chose not, in his final hour, to call himself, as is the fashion among Melbournian Greeks anxious to prove their patriotic credentials these days, a Hellene. Now if being Greek is good enough for someone who can compose poetry in perfect meter while being roasted to his death, (led to the instrument of his martyrdom, he remarked, again in meter, “Look at the time Death chose to take me, now that the branches are flowering, and the earth sends forth grass” -a powerful metaphor for the regenesis of an enslaved nation) it is certainly good enough for me.

Greek Dictator Ioannis Metaxas’ purported OXI, which the Greek people commemorate in Australia every 28 October, through the ritual mocking of the physical, sexual and mental prowess of Italian Australians, (going so far as to make gross generalisations about the Italian race altogether, which is counterintuitive, given that Greek-Australians generally consider all Italian-Australians to be lapsed Greeks, as encapsulated by the maxim: μία φάτσα, una razza), was, following established precedent, not monolectic. In a marked departure from hallowed tradition, it was not even Greek. Instead, when the Italian envoy presented a thoroughly disgruntled, pyjama-clad Metaxas with Mussolini’s demand that Greece surrender to him, various militarily strategic positions, Metaxas chose to respond in French, with a not so resounding: “Alors, c’est la guerre,” (So, its war).

Undoubtedly, it was the retouching of this simple statement into a brief but indomitable OXI (facilitated by the fact that the technology of the time did not permit the Italian envoy to a) video Metaxas’ reaction with his phone and b) upload it onto youtube), that galvanized an entire nation into a remarkable fight for freedom and inspired them to achieve the impossible: the repelling of the invader. In such a retouching, a powerful myth was born, one whose legacy endures to the present day.

Consequently, it was the power of this myth, the myth of the grand negative, that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras sought to subvert to his own ends, when, last year, he called the Helladites to referendum. Flipping the legacy of Constantine Palaeologus on its head, it was not the answer, but the referendum question, which assumed an uncanny Byzantine form: “Should the agreement plan submitted by the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund to the Eurogroup of 25 June 2015, and comprised of two parts which make up their joint proposal, be accepted?” Again, in a radical break with millennia of Greek history, the suggested responses to the question neither included: “Oh well, its war,” nor “Come and Get It,” nor an admonition to prepare the barbeque, the rumour that former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis offered to submit himself to fiscal waterboarding on behalf of the Greek people, while simultaneously offering economic witticisms in meter to an ecstatic, self-lubricating Phillip Adams on Late Night Live, if only the Troika would let Greece breathe, having only just recently been debunked. Instead, the Helladites (and their apodemic cousins, living moments of similar grandeur via facebook and puerile protests in the cities of their abode) were led to think by their leader that they must partake of a Metaxas moment and vote OXI.

Thus, sixty-one percent of the Helladites, conflating Greece’s desperate hours with those of 1940, voted for an OXI of their own. Soon after, Alexis Tsipras and his government, completely ignored that OXI, signaling their adherence to the memorandum they had asked their people to reject.

This marks a historic watershed in the history of Greek negatives. For it suggests that Greek negatives can be rendered non-existent through non-recognition. Consider the impact of Diakos’ sacrifice, if, upon having delivered his poem to his captors, excoriating them and their religion, the Turks had, instead of taken him at his word, responded, “well you’re a Muslim anyway.” Quite possibly, this is the reason why the prudent Greeks of yore avoided using the term OXI in the first place, anticipating the semantic reforms of Tsipras, as arguably, did the Lord in the Gospel of Matthew, when he stated: “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

In imposing his semantic progression upon the diachronic linguistics of the Greek language, is Tsipras, in rendering OXI redundant merely adhering to a hidden clause within the Bailout Agreement that provides for the eradication of dissent and thought? Further, is Tsipras, in fact, the Troika’s Orwellian O’Brien, tasked with the elimination of all words from the Greek language that inhibit compliance with lending criteria, starting with the most potent, the most enduring, OXI?

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller…”

When all is lost, salvation appears in the form of Sabaton, the Swedish Heavy Metal Band, who in their song “Coat of Arms,” seek to remind the Greek people, of the glories of negativity as well as the fact that while the enemies, of yesteryear charged from the hills, today they charge from behind the counter, in the form of bank fees: “At dawn envoy arrives, morning of October 28th/"No day" proven by deed/ Descendants of Sparta, Athens and Crete/Look north, ready to fight/Enemies charge from the hills/ To arms, facing defeat/There's no surrender, there's no retreat.”
Until next time then, OXI, and we bloody mean it.

First published in NKEE on 29 October 2016