Saturday, May 11, 2019


I lament the absence of artful nonsense words in the modern Greek language, especially since such words have been with us since times ancient. Yet to φλυαρεῖν, ληρεῖν, φληναφεῖνor ὑθλεῖν (and it is significant that so many words existed to describe those whose discourse was nonsensical) in ancient times, was not to rejoice in babblement and the dextrous reconstruction of words and meaning, of the type that Edward Lear or Lewis Carrol rejoiced in, but rather, to signal that the speaker-of-nonsense is mentally impaired or just foolish.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Aristophanes rejoiced in words. Coining such terms asΝεφελοκοκκυγία (Cloud cuckoo land), to describe an imaginary kingdom of birds in the sky, or κομπογακελορρημόνα (fancy phrase-trusser) to describe Aeschylus, or the inspiredσκοροδοπανδοκευτριαρτοπώλιδες to denote the swede and cabbage sellers of Lysistrata, or even the magisterial in scope:«λοπαδοτεμαχοσελαχογαλεοκρανιολειψανοδριμυποτριμματοσιλφιοκαραβομελιτοκατακεχυμενοκιχλεπικοσσυφοφαττοπεριστεραλεκτρυονοπτοκεφαλλιοκιγκλοπελειολαγῳοσιραιοβαφητραγανοπτερύγων», a type of all in dish translated as: “plattero-filleto-mulleto-turboto-cranio-morselo-pickleo-acido-silphio-honeyo-pouredonthe-topothe-ouzelo-throstleo-cushato-culvero-cutleto-roastingo-marowo-dippero-leveret-syrupu-gibleto-wings,” he created a tradition of the coinage of immense polysemic compound words that endured until times Byzantine, wielded especially as deadly weapons of insult. Thus:
A “Πρεσβευτοκερδοσυγχυτοσπονδοφθόρος” is he who destroys (phthoros) treaties (spondai) and throws them into confusion (synkhyzo) by being an ambassador (presveutis) motivated by greed (kerdos). In the aftermath of the ratification of the Prespa Agreement and the Greek Prime Minister’s working visit to Turkey, the jury is out as to whether we need more diplomats of that nature.
According to a Byzantine commentary on Lucian, the Paphlagonians, who came from north west coast of Asia Minor, west of Pontus, were called pig-assed by the rest Byzantines (χοιρόκωλοι) because they were seen as dirty and hairy.
On the other hand, "Ἑλληνοθρησκοχριστοβλασφημότροπος" was a term  invented to denore those whose character (tropos) is inclined to revere pagans (Hellinothriskos) and blaspheme Christ, an apt enough term, which I propose to re-introduce into the Greek language to describe on-line Facebook Olympian evangelists.
You didn’t want to upset Konstantinos of Rhodes. The scholar Leon Choirosphaktes did, and even though his surname means “the pig-killer” Konstantinos coined the more extreme “Κασαλβοπορνομαχλοπρωκτεπεμβάτης” to level towards him, with devastating effect. This labyrinthine portmanteau word describes he who mounts the anuses of whores, prostitutes and lewd women.
Descending further into the real of smut, the term “Κουκκουροβουκινάτορες φουκτοκωλοτρυπάτοι” was used in a demotic poem with the intent to mock the eunuchs of Emperor Ioannis Tzimiskis, Vasileios Lekapinos and Patriarch Polyeukros. This savage word refers to men with shrivelled penises and gaping posteriors.
The problem is, however, that these words, as ingenious as they sound actually mean something. Not so with Lewis Caroll’s poem the Jabberwocky which appears in his timeless classic “Through the Looking Glass” and which is my favourite poem of all time:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.”
How does one translate the highly psychological, deeply Freudian and incomprehensible Jabberwocky into Greek? 

In German, its Der Jammerwoch, in Russian Бармаглот (Barmaglot), in French, Le Jaseroque, in Latin, Mors Iabochii or Jubavocus or even Taetriferocias. Apparrently, translating the Jabberwocky into ancient Greek or Latin was a favourite party pursuit of Oxford Dons of old, who competed with each other in the erudition stakes. Further, Lewis Carroll himself asked Robert Scott, Dean of Rochester and co-editor of the magisterial Liddell and Scott Oxford Greek Lexicon to render the poem in ancient Greek. For some unknown reason, Scott refused.
Ronald Arbuthnot Knox, for example, attempted a version in 1918 in Classical Greek, entitled Ἰάμβρωξ Ἰαμβικῶς, which approximates the style and meaning of the original text. His elegant version, in iambic metre reads as follows:
«καυσπροῦντος ἤδη, γλοῖσχρα διὰ περισκιᾶς
στρυβλοῦντα καὶ στρομφοῦντ’ ἂν εὑρίσκοις τόφα,
δεινὴ δ’ ἐπέσχε σωθρία βορυγρόφας,
ῥάθαισι δ’ ἀντιποικὸν  ὕμνησαν ῥάθαι
ἔκγριμμα· τὸν δὲ πρέσβυν ἐξαυδᾶν κλύω·
‘παῖ, παῖ, φύγοις ἄν ἐμπέδως Ἰάμβροχα,
ἔιτ’ ὄνυχι μάρπτων εἴτε δὴ δάκνων τύχοι
γνάθοισιν, ἀπρόσοιστον· ὣς δ’ αὔτως φυγεῖν
ὄρνιθα δεινὸν Γυπογῦπ’· οὐδ’ ἂν φθάνοις
ἐλθὼν δαφλοισβῷ πρὸς λόγους Βανδράρπαγι.
ὁ δ’ ἐν χεροῖν εὔκοπνον ἐξάρας ξίφος
θήρας ὅμως μετ’ ἴχνος ὀλγώδους ἔβη·
τέλος δ’ ἀπειπών, πολλὰ συννοούμενος,
πλείστην ὅπου παρέσχε φλαττόθρατ σκιάν,
ἔστη δι’ ὀλίγου· χὠς ἔβοσκεν ἀργίλας
θυμῷ μερίμνας, ἐμπύροισιν ὄμμασιν
σμύζων Ἰάμβρωξ ἔπτετ’ ἐκ ψυδνῆς νάπης,
δῆλος δὲ βορβολισμὸς ἦν ποτωμένου·
ταύτην δὲ καὶ δίχ’, ὡς ἐσεῖδε, καὶ τρίχα,
ἔνθεν τε κἄνθεν διάτορον πληγὴν νέηων,
ἔσνιξεν, ἐξέσναξεν εὐκόπνῳ ξίφει,
εῖθ’ οὗπερ ἔκτα κειμένης τεμὼν κάρα
γαυχούμενος κατῆλθεν· ἀσπαστὸν δ’ ἰδὼν
ἐλθόνθ’ ὁ πρέσβυς, τοιάδ’ ἐξεφρίγκασεν·
‘ὦ χαῖρε λάμπωψ· ὡς Ἰαμβροχοκτόνον
τόδ’ ἀγκάλισμα παιδὸς ἀσμένως ἔχω.
ὦ τρισβακαρτὸν ἦμαρ· ὦ καλοῦ καλά.»
So impressed was the discerning populace with his effort that the Morning Post, where the translation was published, commented that “dust collected in the Shrewsbury Sixth Form Library (where Knox was Master of Greek), is found, when chemically analysed, to be comprised of Greek particles.”
Of course, Knox was aided by the fact that the seemingly nonsense words in the text were actually ascribed meaning by Carroll, thus, “Bryllig,” (derived from the verb to bryl or broil), signified “the time of broiling dinner, i.e. the close of the afternoon,” “Slythy” meant “smooth and active,” “Tove” was a species of Badger with  smooth white hair, long hind legs, and short horns like a stag, that lived chiefly on cheese. “Gyre”: was a verb derived from ‘giaour’ meaning infidel or dog that denoted scratching like a dog and a  “Borogove” was held to be an extinct kind of Parrot. They had no wings, beaks turned up, made their nests under sun-dials and lived on veal.
Like Carroll, Knox imports some inventive word play from English into Classical Greek. «Σωθρία» is a conflation of σαθρός, meaning unsound, and νωθρία, meaning sluggishness, which is close to the meaning that Humpty Dumpty ascribes to the word ‘mimsy’ in the original text, as something miserable and flimsy. The tone of the poem is Aeschylian, evoking the same type of iambic verse employed by the old master in the dialogue sections of his tragedies.
Knox’s version works because as Lewis Carroll once wrote of his poetic creation: “A perfectly balanced mind can understand it.” The Greek verses augment Max Eastman’s praise of the original: “these verses are superior to most rhymes, not only because of their musical perfection, but because they combine a completer nonsense with a more meticulous possibility.”
In a 1964 article, on the other hand, M. L. West published two versions of the poem in Ancient Greek that exemplify the respective styles of the epic poets Homer and Nonnus. He called the Jabberwock Λαλίομψ and the poem Λαλίομφα. The Homeric version departs from the original in that it ingeniously seeks not to capture the style of Carroll’s original, but rather, sets out to re-tell the story of the Jabberwock as if Homer was reprising the Odyssey:
«Θῆρά μοι ἔννεπε, Μοῦσα πολύφλοισβον Λαλίομφα».
(Tell me oh Muse of the roaring Jabbering beast).
The part where the hero divests the Jabberwock of his head is perhaps, the most inspired segment of the epic:
«λίπε δ᾽αὐτόθι θῆρ᾽ἀμέγαρτον πλὴν κεφαλῆςτὴν δ᾽ἂψ αὖτις προένεικεν γαλόμφωνΓαλόμφων, rather than Knox’s γαχούμενος, to signify gallumphing, is a word that cries out for introduction into the modern Greek language.
Mary Matthews provides a brilliant version where the lines "and burbled as it came" are rendered: καί βύβληθεν ὡς ἦλθεν, while "came gallumphing back is expertly rendered as «αὐτός ἀπήλθεν γαλυμφῶν.» She also uses the delightful «σνίκερ-σνάκων» for snicker-snack, as opposed to Knox’s more sophisticated but less charming: «ἔσνιξεν, ἐξέσναξεν».
Sadly, there appears to be a dearth of interest in rendering the immortal poem into Modern Greek, the Modern Greeks being a no-nonsense people who demand to be taken at their word, meaning that their word must be intelligible. The recent demise of the great Greek comedian Harry Klynn is thus a great blow for all devotees of nonsense everywhere, for it was he who coined the great nonsense word, prophetically to describe modern buzz-words that are devoid of meaning, in the most decorous and enduring:  «Ουγκάγκα μπουμ μπουμ χι γκάπα γκουμ μπιρλί γκαγκά, αούγκιγκι αούγκιγκι μπάγκαλα γκαούγκα γκα.» I am thoroughly convinced that these were the words the Jabberwock burbled as he whiffled through the tulgey wood and that Klynn, more than anyone, presciently understood the nature of the threat the Jabberwocky represents to all of us.
In absence of a Modern Greek version, I am now attempting a very tenuous version in my native Samian dialect:
«Tς βρασιάς ήταν γκ οι γλίτσδις ασβοί
γυροφέρναν γκι τρυπόυσαν στου βναλάκ᾽ αυτοί.
Όλου χουλοσκασμέν᾽τς ήταν οι βωρουγάλ᾽
γκι τα τεμπλογούρνα σκούζανι πάλ᾽…
Κι τουνε καθάρσες τουν Τσαμπουνοθηριό;
Έμπα στ αγκάλιζιμ, λαμπρούσκομ πδάκιμ.
Μέρα τχερή, τνη καλώ καλή,
μπουρμπούλζι απ᾽τ᾽χαρά᾽τ.
As I tentatively translate, I realise why the Jabberwocky had to die. From the ancients with their immense vocabulary to denote one, until the present, no one likes a Babbler.

First published in NKEE on 11 May 2019