Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.19

William J. Dominik (ed.), Words and Ideas.   Wauconda, IL:  Bolchazy-Carducci, 2002.  Pp. 281.  ISBN 0-86516-485-1.  $29.00 (pb).  

Contributors: A. P. Bevis, W. J. Dominik, A. Gosling, J. L. Hilton and S. M. Masters

Reviewed by Nicolas P. Gross, University of Delaware (
Word count: 818 words

An old adage claims that a camel is a horse created by a committee. In the instance of Words and Ideas, however, the contributors and the editor have created a triple crown winner, perhaps even a Seabiscuit. In the early 1970's word power courses became very popular, at least at large state universities that thrive on heavily-enrolled lecture courses. At that time, however, there was no single book, like Words and Ideas, that adequately presented materials needed for a roughly fifteen week course, and very few that provided much depth or context.

Even without its 164 URL's, Words and Ideas would have been by far the best word power book of an earlier era and will, I trust, become a standard text for the current generation of students.

The book contains eight chapters: 1) "Word-Building Basics" 2) "Word-building tools: Greek Components" 3) "Word-building tools: Latin Components" 4) "Mythology" 5) "Medicine" 6) "Politics and Law" 7) "Commerce and Economics" 8) "Philosophy and Psychology." While the chapters vary somewhat in format "Latin Components" constitutes a reasonably good paradigm of the others. To wit: Latin alphabet; Latin bases: nouns and verbs; Latin prefixes; Latin suffixes; noun-forming suffixes, adjective-forming suffixes, Verb-forming suffixes; Latin expressions; Bibliography and Further Reading; Web Sites: Names and URLs; and Exercises.

The chapter on "Medicine," to cite another example, begins with a summary account of Greek medicine, and then discusses subsets of medicine of major importance such as anatomy and physiology and associated vocabulary. In the presentation of Roman medicine, a similar pattern appears with topics such as "Military Doctors," "Surgery" and "Medical and Surgical Instruments," again followed by brief summaries of related vocabulary, and concludes with study of both Greek and Latin derivatives. The bibliography for this chapter runs the gamut from alternatives to Words and Ideas such as Ayers' Bioscientific Terminology and Dunmore and Fleischer's Medical Terminology: Exercises in Etymology to scholarly treatises such as G. E. R. Lloyd's Hippocratic Writings. The web sites offer a comparable breadth from "Ancient Medicine" to "Medword."

Ancient texts are frequently cited. Indeed Words and Ideas contains a wealth of useful, translated passages relevant to its various subsections. In a discussion of the theory of humors, the appropriate passage from Hippocrates on the medical effect of geographical location is presented in translation (Airs, Waters, Places 1, p. 109). Similarly a description of characteristics appropriate for a successful a midwife also finds citation (Soranus, Gynecology 1. 2-4, p. 116).

Aristotle's definition of Polis can be found in "Politics and Law." The text translated is Aristotle, Politics 1252b-1253a, p. 146. Once students have read these brief passages, one hopes that they and perhaps their teachers will be inspired to delve further.

The exercises at the conclusion of each chapter contain familiar drills: "Explain the origin of the word diagnosis" [diagnosis in bold] and "The government attempted to impose its will upon the populace in a Procrustean manner." But, as the examples above show, the book is by no means bound to brute memorization. The chapter on medicine, for example, also asks: "List two basic differences between Greco-Roman medical practice and modern Western medical practice. Be sure to identify the ancient and modern practices in each difference you cite."

Classicists' love of the languages that they teach finds its way into this book through "lessons," large and small, on Latin and ancient Greek. A small lesson in Latin: "Give the meaning of each of the following Latin phrases in English and for each phrase write a sentence of your own in which you incorporate the phrase. a. in camera b. vice versa, and so on. In short, the book examines "language" in meaningful ways.

In a text of this breadth, an occasional error of detail is all but inevitable. On p. 38, there is an error of incorrectly transferred location: under the column entitled "Greek word," law is found and nomos appears under the column for "meaning of Greek." So too one might quibble about the section on "Roman Trade and Transport" for in addition to "Road and Sea Transport" there might have been a note on the extensive use of the canals on the Italian peninsula during antiquity. Perhaps some might also object to the use of drawn pictures ("cartoons") to illustrate meanings of words, but given the visual orientation of today's students and given the amount of memorization (anathema to both yesterday's and today's students) involved in any word power course, the illustrations are welcome.

In fact, in planning this book, the editor and his contributors faced an exceptionally difficult task of selection lest they produce a multitome reference work. One could transform the topic "Technology in the Greek and Roman World" (a section of chapter 7) into a fifteen week course. Given the scope of the endeavor, Words and Ideas is as comprehensive as possible and eminently usable by advanced secondary school students and by undergraduates. It will serve them well.

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