Graecismus


Graecismus (gree-kis’-mus): Using Greek words, examples, or grammatical structures. Sometimes considered an affectation of erudition.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve confused the cold weather cap, balaclava, with the sweet-honied Greek dessert baklava. “The robber was wearing a baklava over his face,” my police report said when I had witnessed a convenience store stick-up. I saw a knitted face-covering when I wrote it, and the police saw a face concealed by a sticky Greek pastry. When they caught the guy, he actually had some baklava on his face! He was coming out of the Greek restaurant that the police had staked out after reading my report. Come to find out, this guy was a notorious sticker-upper with an addiction to Greek desserts. This was one of those cases where a mistake led to a hoped for outcome—balaclava/baklava who could guess? My life-motto came out of this experience: “Just because you’re wrong doesn’t mean you’re not right.” It makes me feel good to say this to myself when I’m wrong. It makes me realize how contingent right and wrong are—I may be wrong today, but I may be right tomorrow. If I am willing to wait, my wrong may become my right!

Think about it! How wrong was Thomas Edison when he started figuring out how to “harness” electricity? First, he used a horse and buggy metaphor. Second, he didn’t wear a white lab coat when he first started his work. He actually used a small dog harness to get control of electricity. He would put the harness on a bell jar and yell “giddyap,” His assistant John Ott would drag the bell jar around the laboratory by its dog harness until it came loose or the jar broke. But eventually, he got it right. He had Ott put the bell jar over his head, bite down on a tin foil chewing gum wrapper, and go outside in a raging thunder and lightning storm. Ott was hit by a non-fatal lightning bolt that singed off his hair and mustache. Edison noted after what had happened, if he put a pin on top of Ott’s head, the pin would unerringly point north, and so would Ott. This should’ve been enough—inventing the human magnet—but Edison wasn’t satisfied. He wanted Ott to light up like a kerosine lamp. As an experiment, he placed a soup bowl on Ott’s blistered head, and filled the bowl with kerosine. He had Ott light the kerosine and it went up in flames. Edison blew out the lab’s lamps and Ott shone like a beacon of scientific proof. Edison had proven his headlight theorem. Now, it was time to harness electricity. He threw away the dog harness, and the harness metaphor, altogether. Now, he would use “bulb,” drawn from horticulture. Edison wrote, “The bulb produces energy, as you can see when a tulip pushes through the earth in spring. I will no longer use bell jars in my experiments. Instead, I will use bulb jars.”

And then it happened. Edison and Ott had had Chinese take-out for lunch. (Menlo Park, NJ was known for the quality of its Chinese cuisine.) As a joke, Edison stuck a bamboo skewer in a bulb jar and sealed it with sticky rice. “Watch this,” said Ott, and stuck a piece of sparking wire through the sticky rice too. The bulb jar lit up so brightly that Edison and Ott had to cover their eyes. “Eureka!” yelled Edison. “You smella,” yelled Ott, “Ha ha ha!” “Eureka! You smella! Ha ha ha!” they both laughingly said in harmony. From then on, the “bulb jar” was called the “light bulb.”

This story may be a little inaccurate, but it makes the point that what’s wrong may turn out to be right, and the other way around. Have you met up with somebody suffering from the vapors or hysteria? Have you seen a miasma lately? If you answered “Yes” to either or both of these questions, you may have been right a few hundred years ago, but not ant more. Go read an encyclopedia, or Google everything you believe. Also, read up on what it means to be out of touch with reality. Things change.


Definition courtesy of “Silva Rhetoricae” (rhetoric.byu.edu).

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