Mark Janse (Ghent University)
“The Greeks great interest in the significance of words and enjoyment in revealing unexpected connections among them made them much more enthousiastic punsters than we are” (Henderson 1987: 167).
In this presentation I present a semantic description of verbal compounds prefixed with ΔΙΑ in Aristophanes’ comedies, where the prefix is often used to emphasize the obscene interpretation of such compound verbs. One can find stray remarks on the added obscene value of verbal compounds prefixed with ΔΙΑ in comparison with their simplex counterparts in the commentaries by Dover, Henderson, Sommerstein and others. Consider, for example, the following comment by Henderson on the Salaminian women at Lysistrata 59f. ἀλλ’ ἐκεῖναί γ’ οἶδ’ ὅτι | ἐπὶ τῶν κελήτων διαβεβήκασ’ ὄρθριαι ‘I know that they came early, mounted on their yachts’: “The obscentiy here is emphasized by the use for the normal βεβήκασιν of διαβεβήκασιν, to mount or bestride with the legs apart” (Henderson 1991: 165 - italics mine). Other commentators are less tempted by the possibility of such obscene interpretations. Compare, for instance, von Wilamowitz’ sober-minded comment on the use of διαλέγω with reference to the would-be escapee at Lysistrata 720 τὴν μέν γε πρώτην διαλέγουσαν τὴν ὀπὴν κατέλαβον ‘I caught the first one picking open the/her hole’: “es ist ‘auseinanderlesen’; sie erweitert also das Loch, indem sie die Steinbrocken herausliest, die es verstopfen’ (von Wilamowitz 1927, ad loc.). Von Wilamowitz’ comment coaxed the following remark from Henderson (1991: 169 - italics his): “he serves only to leach all the humor from the joke (and there must be a joke here”. Being an enthousiastic punster and cunning linguist, I believe that there are still quite a few instances of obscene wordplay to be uncovered in Aristophanes’ comedies, verbal compounds prefixed with ΔΙΑ being just one of a series of case studies that I hope to present in due time. In this particular case, I focus on what I have somehat irreverantly termed ‘disjunctive’ ΔΙΑ (and as such it is also quite literally an Auseinandersetzung with von Wilamowitz’ bone-dry lack of humor - the original meaning of which is, after all, ‘liquid, fluid’). I will show that the ‘disjunctive’ sense is not just apparent in cases such as διαβαίνω or διαλέγω (quoted above), but also latently lurking in cases of ‘intensive’ ΔΙΑ. An example of the latter is the cookery metaphor for cunnilingus at Ecclesiazusae 847: τὰ τῶν γυναικῶν διακαθαίρει τρύβλια ‘he cleans out the women’s bowls’ (‘he’ being Smoeus, “the notorious cunnilinctor” from the mouth of Henderson 1991: 143). A careful analysis of the verbal compounds prefixed with ΔΙΑ reveals that there are more cases of obscene wordplay than even Henderson’s Maculate Muse could have imagined, and some quite unexpectedly so. It also suggests that even if the Greeks were more enthousiastic punsters than we are, we can at least aspire to approach them as closely as possible.
Note: Greek examples will be transcribed and translated throughout for the sake of those who are not fluent in Ancient Greek.
Henderson, Jeffrey. 1987. Aristophanes Lysistrata. Ed. with introduction and commentary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Henderson, Jeffrey. 1991. The Maculate Muse. Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Janse, Mark. 2011. εἰς Ὀρσιλόχου (Ar. Lys. 725). Mnemosyne 64: 629-631
Janse, Mark. 2014. Aischrology. In: Giorgios K. Giannakis (general ed.), Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics, vol. 1: 76-86. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
Janse, Mark. 2015. Dirty Birds and Birdies: Aristophanes’ (Per)version of the Thereus Myth (Lys. 770-776). Forthcoming.
Janse, Mark & Danny Praet. 2012. Orsilochus, the Perfect Adulterer. Glotta 88: 166-173.
von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Ulrich von. 1927. Aristophanes Lysistrate. Berlin: Weidmann.