Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.14

James J. O'Hara, True Names: Vergil and the Alexandrian Tradition of Etymological Wordplay. New and expanded edition (first published 1996).   Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2017.  Pp. xliii, 325.  ISBN 9780472036875.  $39.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Boris Kayachev, Trinity College, Dublin (


This new edition of O’Hara’s True Names is an updated reprint of the original 1996 publication, admirably reviewed here by Wills (BMCR 97.12.16). Additions consist of an ‘Introduction to the New and Expanded Edition’ (xvii–xxiii), a ‘List of New Examples’ (xxv–xxxi), a ‘New Bibliography’ (xxxiii–xliii), a ‘General Index for New Introduction and Examples’ (321), and an ‘Index of Words Glossed in New Introduction and Examples’ (323–325).

The purpose of the brief new introduction is to ‘reflect on the wide scholarly response to the first edition of the book’ (xvii). Indeed, the new bibliography lists just under three hundred publications (mostly from after 1996); for comparison, the original bibliography included about four hundred items. O’Hara acknowledges that other scholars have occasionally found his policy of recognising etymological wordplay excessively cautious, and admits that his more recent work ‘has grown friendlier to indeterminacy and uncertainty’ (xviii). Still, he will sometimes remain sceptical of new suggestions, ‘generally when […] the poet is not being asked to do enough work’ (xix).

The main difference between the original ‘Catalogue of Etymological Wordplay’ (about 470 entries) and the ‘List of New Examples’ (about 130 entries) is that the latter, rather than offering detailed discussions of individual contexts, merely refers to the publication that suggested a particular etymology, with only a brief summary (one to two lines in most cases). It should also be noted that the new list does not systematically include examples from Horsfall’s Aeneid commentaries,1 Paschalis’s monograph,2 and Ahl’s annotated translation of the Aeneid:3 ‘Someone who wants to know what has been suggested for any passage should check my original text, my new list, Horsfall’s commentaries, and Paschalis and Ahl’ (xx).

Although perhaps the title-page statement ‘New and Expanded Edition’ leads one to expect a little bit more, this updated version of O’Hara’s seminal monograph is timely and welcome, especially since it appears in an affordable (well, relatively) paperback format. It is handy to have an overview of all the work that has been done in the two decades since the original publication; and O’Hara’s decision merely to catalogue new instances of etymological wordplay suggested by other scholars, without voicing his own opinion on their plausibility, is understandable. I conclude by sketchily and tentatively offering a few more examples, not so much to supplement O’Hara’s list as to show that there is scope for further research, especially in the area of intertextual etymological wordplay.

1) Ecl. 8.17 nascere praeque diem ueniens age, Lucifer, almum: it seems clear that diemage is intended as a gloss on Luci-fer; but there may be more to it here, as the striking tmesis of praeueniens makes visible both the meaning of the verb and the fact that the morning star precedes the day (just as prae precedes diem).

2) Georg. 1.338–339 in primis uenerare deos, atque annua magnae | sacra refer Cereri: the passage is modelled on Hes. Op. 465–466 εὔχεσθαι δὲ Διὶ χθονίῳ Δημήτερί θ’ ἁγνῇ | ἐκτελέα βρίθειν Δημήτερος ἱερὸν ἀκτήν, and magnae is a ‘translation with paronomasia’ for ἁγνῇ, as arguably deos is for Διί (though the latter are not placed in exactly the same metrical position).

3) Aen. 1.726–727 dependent lychni laquearibus aureis | incensi et noctem flammis funalia uincunt: the pairing of ‘lamps’ (lychni) with ‘torches’ (funalia) evokes Homeric exegesis, which claimed that in Homer λύχνος means ‘torch’ rather than ‘lamp’ (schol. Od. 19.34 ἀπὸ τοῦ λύειν τὸ νύχος. λέγει δὲ τὴν δᾷδα κυρίως. τοῦ δὲ παρ’ ἡμῖν καλουμένου λύχνου τοὺς ἥρωας χρωμένους ποιητὴς οὐκ εἰσάγει οὐδὲ Ἡσίοδος μέμνηται), whereas the metaphor noctemuincunt alludes to the etymology ἀπὸ τοῦ λύειν τὸ νύχος; cf. Stat. Theb. 1.520–521 ast alii tenebras et opacam uincere noctem | adgressi tendunt auratis uincula lychnis.

4) Aen. 2.516–517 praecipites atra ceu tempestate columbae […] sedebant: praecipites may be glossing columbae, if we are willing to recognise allusion to Arat. 296–298 ἴκελοι δὲ κολυμβίσιν αἰθυίῃσιν […] ἥμεθ<α> (that is, praecipites is a translation, columbae a paronomasia, for κολυμβίσιν, ‘divers’).

5) Aen. 7.789–791 at leuem clipeum sublatis cornibus Io | auro insignibat, iam saetis obsita, iam bos, | argumentum ingens, et custos uirginis Argus: argumentum is not only a paronomasia for Argus, but also, right under aurum in the preceding line, is bound to suggest argentum (cf. Ov. Met. 6.68–69 illic et lentum filis immittitur aurum | et uetus in tela deducitur argumentum), especially in view of Mosch. Eur. 53–54 ἀργύρεος μὲν ἔην Νείλου ῥόος, δ’ ἄρα πόρτις | χαλκείη, χρυσοῦ δὲ τετυγμένος αὐτὸς ἔην Ζεύς.


1.   N. Horsfall, Virgil, Aeneid 2: A Commentary (Leiden, 2008); Virgil, Aeneid 3: A Commentary (Leiden, 2006); Virgil, Aeneid 6: A Commentary, 2 vols. (Berlin, 2013); Virgil, Aeneid 7: A Commentary (Leiden, 2000); Virgil, Aeneid 11: A Commentary (Leiden, 2003).
2.   M. Paschalis, Virgil’s Aeneid: Semantic Relations and Proper Names (Oxford, 1997).
3.   F. Ahl (tr.), Virgil: Aeneid (Oxford, 2007).

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