BMCR 1997.12.16

1997.12.16, True Names: Vergil and the Alexandrian Tradition of Etymological Wordplay

, True names : Vergil and the Alexandrian tradition of etymological wordplay. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. xvii, 320 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780472106608. $44.50.

James O’Hara, who previously gave Vergilian studies a monograph on prophecy, has now contributed a reference work on the author’s technique. True Names has two parts, a basic introduction on ancient etymological thinking (for more see Robert Maltby’s forthcoming monograph) and then a “reasonably comprehensive collection of examples of etymological wordplay in Vergil”. In O’Hara’s opinion, his second section, which occupies about two-thirds of the volume, is the more important and more useful part of the book. By genre, therefore, the volume is an etymological commentary, and a model of that.

The annotated catalogue, which begins with the Aeneid, includes matters great and small. Here is a typical run of examples from the fourth book: 359? vocemque his auribus hausi (Lactant. aures a vocibus hauriendis), 377-8 Hermes [= hermeneus ] as interpres divum, 402-7? formicae convectant (Serv. Auct. formica quod ore micas ferat), 438-43? fletibus flatibus, 469? Eumenidum [cf. Agmentis ] veluti demens videt agmina Pentheus, 509-11? ter centum tonat ore deos, Erebumque Chaosque / tergeminamque Hecaten, 609 nocturnisque Hecate [= Trivia] triviis ululata per urbes. The challenge of a single interpretive framework for poetic etymology is quickly apparent: onomastics and Greek glosses are interspersed with what seem to be grammarian jingles proposed ex post facto. Although the Eclogues begin with a likely instance (1.1 sub tegmine fagi, implying the phegos (oak) of Theoc. 12.8 rather than the beech), O’Hara finds comparatively few certain examples of etymology in the Eclogues as a whole. Of the possible reasons he gives, I would credit the issues of genre (a similar tendency is noted in Greek bucolic) and theme more than any relationship to the timing of Varro’s de Lingua Latina.

In the best tradition of reference works, O’Hara is explicit about his process and boundaries and extraordinarily systematic in his format. The parade order for each entry is: (1) passage, (2) discussion, (3) explicit evidence from ancient grammarians, (4) parallel allusions in other authors, (5) bibliography. O’Hara fairly (and almost exhaustively) reports the views of previous critics, from de la Cerda to the present. He generally limits his editorial comments to the expression of occasional doubts and the use of “?” at the beginning of about half the entries, but sometimes several paragraphs are devoted to assessing the case. For such a technical book, True Names is fairly accessible. A clear typographic arrangement and generous quotations allow the reader to have all the relevant data at hand. Items which required more extensive discussion than suitable for this sort of commentary have been treated by O’Hara in a number of recent articles on etymology.

The choice of format (as well as the wealth of new material) make O’Hara’s work a desirable replacement for Bartelink’s Etymologisering bij Vergilius (1965). Commentaries have survived despite some methodological flaws because they are easy to use. Those who want categorizations of etymologies will in general be appeased by sections of the introduction which treat changes of names, the names of gods, the single-adjective gloss, suppression, allusion, et al. The sections on sound imitation (e.g., Aen. 9.716 Inarime ~ Il. 2.783 ein Arimois) and “etymological signposts” (the use of cognomen, dico, perhibeo, etc. to call attention to the fact that a name is a name) will also be of interest to scholars of poetic techniques in general. It may be inelegant that passages are quoted fully in both the introductory lists and the commentary, but I doubt many readers will fault the convenience.

O’Hara’s tone throughout is exceedingly (and perhaps excessively) cautious. Not only is the quotient of qualifications very high (e.g., “for a possible [but perhaps unlikely] allusion to this etymology”, 66), but a great fuss is made over the level of certainty we can hope to have in deciding whether an ancient collocation fits some definition of etymology (e.g., “This list offers both certain and uncertain examples; of the latter, there are some it is not certain that both poets are etymologizing, and perhaps some where both are clearly etymologizing, but it is not certain that Ovid is commenting on Vergil”, 96). The kernel of O’Hara’s anxiety is a healthy interest in the question “How can I distinguish between etymological wordplay made by the poet, which I have discovered, and one that I myself have invented, or forced upon the poet?” (5). And his answer is surely correct: collect the most obvious examples, study their traits, and then extrapolate from there. As part of this process O’Hara offers forty pages in which the characteristics of Vergilian etymologizing are detailed with lists and lists of examples, which indisputably improve the reader’s literary competence on this topic. But at the end of the day, there will never be enough evidence to persuade skeptics about “guarantees of authenticity” or safeguard ourselves completely from “the danger not only of being fooled by coincidence, but of building complex interpretations on a foundation made of sand” (103). Rhetorically, O’Hara is eager to prove himself a careful philologist, and it is always useful for a reader to be privy to the specialist’s own level of confidence, but I think he underestimates the solidness of his own documentation and risks undermining his cause.

Inevitably, different readers will endorse some etymologies or word associations more than others, although few could be more hesitant than O’Hara himself. For example, I do not see why he questions Aen. 7.56-7 Turnus, avis atavisque potens, quem regia coniunx [= Amata ] / adiungi generum miro properabat amore. The elements of technique used here (suppression of the name, placement at ends of consecutive lines) are both documented in sections of the propaedeutic introduction, the goal of which is to give us the necessary competence to distinguish actual examples of etymological wordplay from specious examples. And O’Hara is clear that the wordplay here is not hindered by the actual origins of the name Amata (not from amo), so I assume the real obstacle is that the connection is not attested by an ancient grammarian. But if ancient testimony is always the bottom line (which it is not elsewhere, cf. the acceptance of 6.27 hic labor ille domus with labyrinthus), then why the lengthy effort at educating us in the introduction? On the other hand, one indication that O’Hara has a rigorous method is that he can identify problems for which he does not have prefabricated solutions. For example, at Aen.6.441?Lugentes campi; sic illos nomine dicunt, we see a clear example of the etymological signpost (nomine dicunt), even if it is much less clear what kind of etymologizing is involved. Although he cannot fully embrace Servius’ connection to lucis egentes, O’Hara can at least improve upon Norden’s suggestion of a literary source by specifying one that featured an etymology of the Lugentes campi, either with lack of light or the river Cocytus (cf. Gk kokuo).

As a final note on technique, let me mention the problem of vowel quantity. In his introduction O’Hara offers a sensible moderation between older views that differences in quantity prevent poetic etymologies and more recent claims that they are completely irrelevant. Although the Romans did not share our understanding of ablaut, they could not fail to appreciate morphological variation (e.g., emo~emi, lego~legi) and to realize that changes in vowel quantities alone do not obstruct etymologizing. I would expand this to say that we should be open to poetic etymologies which involve vowel shifts readily apparent to speakers of the language. For example, the conspicuous shifts in ago~egi or facio~feci (paralleled by Greek ones like histemi~histamen or lambano~lempsomai) would support connections between stems with short-a and long-e. Accordingly, on a passage like Aen. 6.714-5 Lethaei ad fluminis undam / securos latices et longa oblivia potant, we might not only find references to the forgetfulness of Lethe in securos and oblivia but might also suspect latices (used earlier of these waters at 4.512 latices simulatos fontis Averni). Imitative syntax with the accusative gives us every reason to think that Latin lateo was equated by poets with Gk lanthano~elathon~Lethe, so the question is then whether lateo and latices were connected (DuCange cites a medieval gloss, latex, vinum etiam dictum quod in vasis lateat, cf. also Livy 44.33.2 occulti latices and the underwater setting of Aen. 1.108 saxa latentia). And since we know from Varro LL 7.42 that Latin letum was etymologized with Gk Lethe, we would have a full set of the short-a~long-e partners in Greek lath-/Leth- and Latin lateo (latex)/letum.

Like most commentaries, the strength of True Names is in the specifics and there is a danger that the forest is lost for the trees. O’Hara’s explicit but brief section on “The Poetic Function of Vergilian Etymologizing” comes only after a hundred pages of background and various lists. Here we learn that etymologizing (1) creates a sense of tone, style, and allegiance to the tradition of Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes, and “marks the text as other than ordinary nonfictional discourse”, (2) provides intellectual pleasure for the reader, which is a consequence of the first point because readers in this tradition delight in philological discovery and recognizing allusions, and (3) fulfills a thematic function involving aetiology, the poetry of origins, in works that “wrestle with the question of what the (Roman) world is like, and how it got to be that way.”

Since poetic etymology has sometimes been seen as puns on a pedestal, O’Hara wants to “argue against the notion that etymological wordplay is merely a game, for although such wordplay does have ludic aspects and may sometimes serve mainly to increase the reader’s pleasure, it is also used to forward the poet’s most serious themes” (3). Again and again, O’Hara will vindicate the blurb’s description of “contemporary’s scholarship’s growing concern with the learned aspects and Alexandrian background of Vergilian poetry.” But if the learned is the antidote to the ludic, it has the danger of the opposite temptation—so O’Hara must warn us that the poetic function of etymology “is seldom the gratuitous display of knowledge that it first appears but is generally serving some artistic purpose”. As a contemporary with similar concerns, I appreciate the contrary currents which challenge the scholar of etymology. And yet, I am still troubled by the frequent use and apparent comfort with the terms “learned” and “wordplay” and the dichotomy they continue between words that are “true” and those that “play”. What sort of poetry does not have themes? And what sort of language is not inherently playful? And how is it that etymology “first appears” a gratuitous display of knowledge when the nomenclature of “word play” (cf. al lus ion) suggests that the ludic has primacy? If lines like Aen. 1.12-13 urbs antiqua fuit / Karthago [lit. ‘New Town” in Punic] involve etymological learning, playfulness and central themes of the poem, what space is left for anything but a unified view of etymology?

Part of the difficulty is the false dichotomy of the poetic and thematic aspects or the pleasurable and serious aesthetics continued by the metaphors in our terms “wordplay” and “etymology”, which embed the problem in the critical vocabulary. Perhaps this is just a problem of English or German, or perhaps it is just my own problem for not letting the metaphor die in “wordplay”, but I prefer O’Hara’s alternative terms “etymologizing” and “etymological thinking”. My suspicion is that we use “wordplay” for conspicuous poetic effects which we do not understand very well, but once we can see a role for them we substitute a more precise terminology (e.g., framing devices, archaic alliteration, iconic language). The plentiful evidence of this book shows that we do now have a basic understanding of “etymological considerations” (another phrase from O’Hara). They are pervasive in Vergil and should be accorded an integral status in Augustan poetics (like that of metrics or word order) free from any presumed coloring as “playful”. In various verses, readers will consider a certain prosody or syntax as dramatic, emphatic, or playful, but metrical and syntactic considerations per se transcend the character of individual usages. As O’Hara says so simply, etymologizing was a part of Vergil’s technique and style. And Vergil’s technique and style were inseparably learned, ludic, and literary. O’Hara is valiantly trying to steer a middle course between the Scylla of learnedness and the Charybdis of playfulness to show that etymology really serves artistic and serious purposes, but I wonder if his tour de force on Vergilian etymology might not have expressed its position better by giving the problem of “wordplay” as much scrutiny as the problem of the scholar-poet.

In a single paragraph on the connections of etymology, allusion, and tropes (following Conte), O’Hara calls etymological wordplay a kind of allusion which also functions as a “kind of trope offering more suggestions to the reader than is first apparent from the surface of the text”. Perhaps through a fuller explanation of this function, O’Hara might be able to establish a foundation which would integrate etymology into the poetic and thematic concerns of Vergilian poetry in a forceful way. The polysemic nature of etymology which gives words or names double semantics directly addresses current scholarly discussions about the Aeneid and its multiple voices. If from the beginning we are allowed to read kat’ antiphrasin and asked to replace Karthago (urbs antiqua) with Karthago (nova urbs), then the poem’s complexity and ambiguity will soon reach a high level.

I for one hope this sort of focused commentary flourishes and that we see similar forays on Augustan mythological and historical items. Particularly in a world of hypertextual opportunities, we will greatly benefit from compiling and uniting quality commentaries by scholars who are specialists on different aspects of a poetic work. True Names makes an ideal building-block for a collaborative companion to the Aeneid.