Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Commas and colons, chickens and caulk

Looking at the first lines of the Odyssey in Greek, a student (I’ll call him “Joe”) asked a great question in class: Are there really commas in Greek?

There are four marks of punctuation in Greek:

the comma,
the period,
a point above the line, equivalent to the semicolon and
     colon, and
the question mark, which looks like our semicolon.
So are there really commas in Greek;

Yes, there are· that is my final answer.

I got curious though about what a comma is anyway. The word comes from the Greek, komma, which means “stamp, coinage, clause” and which itself comes from koptein, “to cut off, stamp.” Before comma denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a short phrase or word group smaller than a colon.”

Aha. So I looked up colon, which comes from the Greek kōlon, which means “limb, part of a strophe, clause of a sentence.” Before colon denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a division of an utterance by sense or rhythm that is smaller and less independent than the sentence and less dependent than the phrase.”

I couldn’t leave period a mystery. It too goes back to the Greek, to periodos, which means “way around, circuit, period of time, rhetorical period.” Periodos comes from the Greek peri (to pass through) and hodos (journey). You can see peri- in such words as perimeter and periscope, where it means “all around.” Before the period was the dot in “dot-com,” the word denoted “an utterance from one full stop to another,” in other words, a sentence.

So a sentence is, in a way, a journey. Maybe that’s why Gertrude Stein in How to Write said “A sentence is an interval in which there is a finally forward and back.”

Etymologically, comma and colon have odd relations: koptein also gives us capon, “a castrated male chicken [or] rabbit,” and kōlon gives us calk and caulk.

[My knowledge of Greek punctuation comes from Schoder and Horrigan’s Reading Course in Homeric Greek. All etymologies and definitions are derived from Webster’s Third New International, my trusty unabridged dictionary.]

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