The word history

History is a potentially confusing word, as students find out if they need to translate it into Latin or Greek.

English has many abstract words that are hard to pin down; and prose composition can be salutary when the student discovers how abstract expressions can become vague or confused, or even be used deliberately to euphemize or deceive.

Latin is very sparing with abstract terms, as to a lesser extent is Greek.

In English, history is commonly used in several different meanings:

  1. The study of past events, as a pursuit.
  2. The compilation of a record of them
  3. The presentation of them as a narrative
  4. The events themselves
  5. The past in general, as opposed to the present or future.

When President Trump said that history is written by dreamers, not doubters, he was using sense 4. When a journalist replied that no, it is written by historians, he was using senses 2 and 3.

On Sunday 10th July 2016, Bill de Blasio, the Mayor of New York, gave a short speech after Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York. His purpose was to give consolation and reassurance after a week of racial strife and shooting. In the course of it, he said, “Partly our history uplifts us, and partly our history afflicts us.” He was using the word history in sense 4 and perhaps sense 3 also.

Among past and present cultures, there are three that may be noted for their preoccupation with history in most or even all of these senses: Roman, Jewish and American. They have in common not only mechanisms for self-preservation but also professed ideals of order, action and justice.

Sense 1 is clear enough in Latin and Greek: historia.

But how can a student put the word into Latin or Greek in senses 2-5? Possibilities include rerum gestarum memoria, or res gestae, or praeterita; and τν ργων μνήμη, or τ συμβεβήκοτα, or τ πρίν.

Anachronism in Euripides

Could Theseus, King of Athens, read or write? And, later, could Agamemnon, King of Argos? We may with confidence believe not.

Yet these are the words of Theseus in Hippolytus, lines 856ff, as Phaedra’s body is revealed:

τί δή ποθ᾽ ἥδε δέλτος ἐκ φίλης χερὸς
ἠρτημένη; θέλει τι σημῆναι νέον;
ἀλλ᾽ ἦ λέχους μοι καὶ τέκνων ἐπιστολὰς
ἔγραψεν ἡ δύστηνος, ἐξαιτουμένη;

‘What can it be, this tablet fastened to her dear hand? Does it mean to tell me something new? No, surely she has written instructions about our marriage and our children, in sorrowful entreaty…’

He breaks the seal of the tablet (δέλτος)—and finds Phaedra’s allegation about Hippolytus: he tells the Chorus he is destroyed by what he has seen ἐν γραφαῖς—in its writings, or, literally, scratchings.

Euripides is cryptic about the nature of the scratchings; but in Iphigenia in Aulis, lines 111ff, he uses open anachronism. Agamemnon speaks to the old man who is to be his messenger (E.P.Coleridge’s translation):

…Up now and away with this missive to Argos, and I will tell you by word of mouth all that is written here, the contents of the folded scroll, for you are loyal to my wife and house.
“Daughter of Leda, in addition to my first letter, I am sending you word —.”
Old man
Say on and make it plain, that what my tongue utters may accord with what you have written.
“Not to despatch your daughter to Euboea’s deep-gulfed wing, to the waveless bay of Aulis, for after all we will celebrate our child’s wedding at another time.”

Phaedra and Theseus did not have knowledge of the written word, nor did Agamemnon and Clytemnestra.

The word ἐπιστολή does not appear in Homer at all, and γράφειν appears only twice—in the Iliad—with its original meaning of to scratch.


σγράφω and scribo are part of that large family of words starting SCR- or SC- to do with surfaces: scratching, scraping, skimming surfaces, or just the surfaces themselves:

English: scrape, skim, scour, scathe, score, scoop, scorch, scud, scald, scratch, scrabble, scrounge, scrub; scum, skiff, scab, scalp, scar, skin, scruff, scupper, scurf, scythe; scarce, scanty.

Latin: scribo, sculpo, scapha (a skiff, which skims over the surface), scopa, scobis.

Greek: γράφω (originally σγράφω), ξέω, ξύρω, σκάριφος, σκάπτω, γλάφω.

The potential philologists among our students
love this kind of thing.