Eponyms from Ancient Greece


Quick Summary

Words from which eponyms derive play a smaller role than Latin and Greek root words in forming English vocabulary, but nevertheless are important for learning the word origins of English vocabulary. An eponym is an English word that is derived from a name, such as that of a person or place. Today we will explore three eponyms from the history of ancient Greece: Pyrrhic, spartan, and epicurean.

Eponyms from Greek History

Some English words are not comprised of root words; eponyms, for instance, are words derived from a famous name or place. Today’s rootcast illustrates three eponyms whose origins arise from the history of ancient Greece: Pyrrhic, spartan, and epicurean.

The eponym Pyrrhic derives from King Pyrrhus, a great Greek general, who fought the Romans in two close battles. Although Pyrrhus won both battles, he suffered such an irreplaceable loss of valued soldiers that it was as costly as if he had lost them both. Today a Pyrrhic victory, in turn, gets you what you want, but nevertheless at a very heavy price. Imagine becoming the CEO of a company at the expense of becoming estranged from your family. That would be a Pyrrhic victory.

The eponym spartan derives from the ancient Spartans, the denizens of the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Spartans had an unusually harsh way of living; they were known for their extreme self-discipline, and the restraint they showed towards having unnecessary pleasures in life. If you lead a spartan lifestyle today, you avoid luxury and live in a rather severely simple way. No Ferraris or Godiva chocolates for the spartan amongst us, but rather an old bicycle and Ramen noodles!

Our last eponym today, epicurean, stems from the philosopher Epicurus, who reputedly said that “The fountain and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach.” Over time and much debate over what the actual teachings of Epicurus were, the meaning of epicurean settled as referring to someone who gets great pleasure in material and sensual things, especially the refined pleasures and knowledge of good food and drink. You might find an epicure at a tasting of fine wine and exquisite chocolate, for instance.

Some of the historical characters of Greece still figure prominently in the English language. We are reminded of the war expertise of Pyrrhus, the self-denying Spartans, and the pleasure-seeking Epicurus each time we use the eponyms Pyrrhic, spartan, and epicurean.

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