30 June 1998

Dictionary lifts the lid on Greeks

Letter from
Patrick Comerford

While Greeks got caught up in recent weeks in strikes and protests over the planned privatisation of the Ionian Bank and the sell-off of Olympic Airways, the government was more concerned with Cyprus and with its slide in the opinion polls.

But for the chattering classes, the most important topic of social conversation has been a new Greek dictionary which has committed the cardinal error of giving outsiders an insight into how Greeks speak about each other.

The primate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christdoulos of Athens and All Greece recently used a disparaging word – “Greekling” – to describe 53 deputies who would prefer not to take their parliamentary oath in the name of God. An unrepentant Archbishop Christdoulos insisted: “I will not keep my keep my mouth shut because I believe that what I have to say is what the people want and need to hear.”

The people would have been far happier not to have heard what Prof George Babiniotis had to say in his New Dictionary of Greek Language. Most Greeks were angered that Prof Babiniotis had provided a secondary definition of “Bulgarian”, revealing it is “a derogatory slang used in ball games by southerners to describe northerners”, particularly for supporters of teams from Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. The dictionary also revealed that Pontians, Greeks originally from the Black Sea region, are often the butt of jokes.

But the outrage was not caused by sensitivity to Greece’s northern neighbours or Pontic immigrants who might be insulted by their names being used as insults implying racial inferiority. “Instead,” according to Nikos Konstandaras, columnist with the leading daily Kathimerini, “the fuss concerns the act of writing down, of codifying, something which everybody accepts readily.”

Every major team in Greece is pilloried by its opponents for its racial or social inferiority. AEK’s supporters are referred to as “Turks”, the supporters of Olympiakos as “cheap fish”, and those of Panathinaikos as “vaseline boys” – a term full of dubious sexual connotations.

Football transcends the social and class barriers in Greece. But, while these insults and nicknames are generally accepted and known, even in polite Greek society, Prof Babiniotis has broken a long-accepted taboo by committing these terms to the printed reference book where they can be read by outsiders.

The Culture Minister, Mr Evangelos Venizelos – who hails from Thessaloniki – said Prof Babiniotis had made “an error”, and Pasok’s candidate for mayor of the city, Mr Thrasyvoulos Lazaridis, a Greek of Pontic origin, made political capital of the controversy. A court in Thessaloniki banned the dictionary following an action by a former deputy mayor who is leader of Thessaloniki’s Pontic Greek association.

But Greeks have always spoken of one another in such terms since classical times. In the Dodecanese, the island of Leros suffers from the double indemnity of being host to the most notorious psychiatric institutions and the fact that its name has a close mental association with the Greek word for dirt or filth, lera. The ancient Greek poet, Phokylides, in one of his few epigrams surviving from the 6th century BC, wrote:

And this is by Phokylides.
The Lerians are evil.
Not one [evil], another not; but all, except Prokles;
and Prokles too is a Lerian.

There are less polite renderings of the original Lerioi kokkoi, but these are best left to imaginative readers to translate. The poet’s sentiments were echoed over 50 years ago by Lawrence Durrell when he visited the island and wrote: “God help those born here … The water is brackish – like the wit of its inhabitants. As far as I am concerned I am wholeheartedly on the side of the poet Phocylides who used the name of Leros to throw mud … An early example of literary mud-slinging!”

Durrell’s contemporary, the half-Irish Patrick Leigh Fermor, was privy to how Greeks talk about each other. Greece and Greek are not words in the Greek language – today they refer to themselves and their state as Hellenes and the Hellenic Democracy. But for 1,000 years Greeks knew themselves as Romaioi, the subjects of the Roman Emperor at Constantinople.

Under the Turks, all Greeks used the word romios to refer to themselves, and Leigh Fermor tried to contrast two appellations: he identified the Romios with the Dome of Saint Sophia, Demotic Greek, and home-sickness for the Byzantine Empire; the Hellene stood for the columns of the Parthenon, katharevousa, the formal Greek language, and nostalgia for the age of Pericles.

The poet Kostis Palamas liked to quote the dying words of a Greek hero before his throat was slit by Ali Pasha:

Romios ego gennithika,
Romios the na pethano.

“I was born a Greek, I shall die a Greek.”

Romiosini, the great epic poem by Yannis Ritsos celebrating Greek identity, has been set to music by Mikis Theodorakis. But when Leigh Fermor used Romios instead of Hellene in casual conversation to describe a Greek, he found Romios is strictly for internal use and not for foreigners, however fluent and seasoned. He “got a black look … I was an outsider usurping a secret family password.”

Prof Babiniotis, who has committed the sin of allowing outsiders to know about secret family passwords and about how Greek speaks about Greek, has offered to delete the controversial entries from the second edition, although he said the initial court order amounted to “a muzzle” on the academic community.

But Prof Babiniotis’ dictionary is likely to continue causing controversy. More indignant citizens are are now upset at a further entry: “Vlachs”, the name of a Balkan people ethnically and linguistically linked to Romanians is used in slang to describe a backward villager.

If Prof Babiniotis is to draw any comfort from the controversy, the first edition is almost sold out.

The Athens daily Ta Nea reported his book had sold 14,500 copies in less than a week – “a figure more suited to a racy novel rather than a reference book,” according to the Athens News.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 30 June 1998.

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