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.


‘Sleep with us’ exhorts an unconventional inn sign not far from here, which students have remarked upon. Sleep seems to be a recurrent topic in their conversation: it has become an issue for too many of them, and some of the theories in a book recently published* may help to explain why. Electronic devices have a lot to answer for.

Sleep is important in the minds of pupils: some are apprehensive about it, while others seem to love it; and it is of course a recurrent topos in literature.

Edward Young:
‘Tired Nature’s sweet restorer, balmy sleep!’
        Night Thoughts, line 1

‘Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more,
Macbeth does murder sleep’—the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast…’
        Macbeth, Act II Scene 2
(A ravelled sleave, by the way, is a filament of silk that has frayed from its thread: Shakespeare, observant as usual, had presumably watched a seamstress skilfully ‘knitting’ them back into the fabric and making the surface of the garment smooth again.)

Horace, on how sleep visits the poor man but forsakes the rich and powerful:
‘destrictus ensis cui super inpia
cervice pendet, non Siculae dapes
dulcem elaborabunt saporem,
non avium citharaeque cantus

somnum reducent: somnus agrestium
lenis virorum non humilis domos
fastidit umbrosamque ripam,
non Zephyris agitata Tempe.
        Odes 3:1

Hypnos appears as a character in Iliad 14, when Hera, fond of summoning lesser immortals to assist with her schemes, finds him on the island of Lemnos and bribes him to send Zeus to sleep, so that Poseidon, unhindered, can help the Greeks in battle; and when he has done so, Hypnos goes to Poseidon to give him the all-clear.

Somnus is the god who puts Palinurus to sleep on a calm night in the Tyrrhenian Sea, to make him fall from his bench on Aeneas’s flagship and be drowned.

He is summoned by Juno, this time to give a dream to Alcyone, in Metamorphoses Book 11. Here Ovid, in his most felicitous mode, describes the Cave of Sleep (lines 592-612), where
ante fores antri fecunda papavera florent
innumeraeque herbae, quarum de lacte soporem
Nox legit et spargit per opacas umida terras.

In an appendix to his Roman Vergil, W. F. Jackson Knight suggests that the poet, like Ennius before him and Keats after him, may have used sleep as an enabler of his poetry: reading passages from his predecessors and mentors the night before, and finding that in the morning they had blended and produced something new: the inspiration that both Ennius and Keats refer to.

Of interest:

  • Keats, Sleep and Poetry.
  • Ennius, Fragmenta, passim


*Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, Penguin 2018