It’s all Greek to me…

Today, I read E. D. A. Morshead’s translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Although my copy is a Harvard Classics from 1982, the first printing was in 1902, and the translation itself dates from the 1880s (as per this mostly positive review in The Saturday Review). Still, I was surprised by the number of words I had to look up. And it’s not just my poor vocabulary at work, Wikipedia corroborates that Morshead’s “language is often archaic.”After my second time having to log into the OED just to find a definition, I decided to compile a list of the more obscure words (found at the end of the post).

I found the word choice often got in the way of actually enjoying the play from both dramatic and literary standpoints. For example, the only line I knew from the play was RFK’s misquote of Edith Hamilton’s translation – delivered during an impromptu speech in Indianapolis in the wake of MLK’s assassination.

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Robert F. Kennedy

The original translation was actually “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” In this context as a noun, despite means “contempt, malice, or spite.” Remarkably close though- and as one Reddit comment put it: “who the hell has Aeschylus in their back pocket?” Morshead’s translation in verse is a little less evocative, with “A boon, I wot…” just sounding silly.

In visions of the night, like dropping rain,

Descend the many memories of pain

Before the spirit’s sight: through tears and dole

comes wisdom o’er the unwilling soul –

A boon, I wot of all Divinity,

that holds its sacred throne in strength, above the sky!

  1. bale-fire – bonfire
  2. soothliest – truthfully. Even sooth as a noun “was in common use down to the first half of the 17th cent.; after this apparently obsolete (except perhaps in sense 4c) until revived as a literary archaism, chiefly by Scott and contemporary writers.”
  3. doughty – courageous, determined, bold, brave
  4. oarage – “they wheel with the oarage of their wings” – movement of limbs [or wings] etc. in a manner resembling that of oars
  5. eyas – a young hawk taken from the nest for the purpose of training, or whose training is incomplete
  6. rapine – seizing the property of others
  7. spilth – spilled
  8. unmeet – unfit
  9. twy-coloured – this one gave me trouble. The “twy-” parasynthetic combination with a noun + ED is a less popular variant of the “twi-” combination; both of these mean “having two.”
  10. minished – diminished
  11. wot – know
  12. refluent – flowing back or flowing again
  13. welter – confusion, upheaval, turmoil
  14. recreant – a person who has been defeated… (hence) cowardly, faint-hearted, craven, afraid
  15. well-a-day – alas! (as an interjection)
  16. fore-sorrow As in “foreknowledge is fore-sorrow.” Definitely a neologism, even the OED doesn’t have an entry for fore-sorrow.
  17. stripling – a young man
  18. trammel – a long narrow fishing net
  19. wight – epithet applied to supernatural beings. (I knew this word, but once, unfortunately, confused it with “waif” in conversation).
  20. pinion – wings of a bird in flight, terminal segment of a bird’s wing that bears the primary flight feathers
  21. meed – reward for labor or service
  22. guerdon – reward
  23. horrent – “A curse that clung to our sodden garb/ and hair as horrent as a wild beast’s fell.” In this sense, horrent means bristling (as in standing up as bristles).
  24. fell – Covering of hair/wool.
  25. leal – loyal, honest, true
  26. coppice – shrubbed area
  27. fulsome – excessively complimentary
  28. obtrude – “How nor a fulsome praise obtrude, nor stint the meed of gratitude?” – become noticeable in an unpleasant way
  29. trace-horse – “A trusty trace-horse bound upon my car…” A horse which draws in traces, as distinct from a shaft-horse. A trace is the pair of ropes by which the collar of a draught-animal is connected with the splinter-bar or swingletree. A swingletree is a crossbar used to balance the pull of the horse.
  30. haply – maybe, perhaps
  31. gauds – “such footclothes and all gauds aside…” In this sense probably meaning a piece of finery or gewgaw. It can also mean a trick or prank, as well as an ornamental bead placed between the ‘aves’ in a rosary.
  32. fain – “I fain would fare unvexed by fear.” Wish, desire.
  33. appanage – the provision made for the maintenance of younger children of royalty
  34. lustral – pertaining to purificatory sacrifice
  35. hies – hastens
  36. rede – advice or counsel
  37. plash – sound produced by liquid striking something, splash
  38. plight – “I plighted troth, then foiled the god.” To pledge solemnly, to be engaged to be married.
  39. glozes – makes excuses for
  40. charnel – associated with death. As part of the phrase “charnel house” – a vault where corpses are piled or a place associated with violent death
  41. nard – spikenard, a costly aromatic ointment
  42. laver – “[The body of Agamemnon lies, muffled in a long robe, within a silver-sided laver]”. A basin or container used for washing oneself
  43. reck – pay heed to something
  44. requital- something given in return or compensation
  45. aver – state or assert
  46. lorn – lonely, abandoned, forlorn
  47. caparisoned – a horse decked out in rich decorative coverings
  48. losel – worthless person
  49. quittance – release or discharge from debt or obligation
  50. exeunt – stage direction in a printed play to indicate a group of characters leave the stage

And finally, an apt summary of the whole sordid tale of the House of Atreus…

Lo! sin by sin and sorrow dogg’d by sorrow –

And who the end can know?

The slayer of today shall die tomorrow –

The wage of wrong is woe


  1. Eliot, Charles & Morshead, E. D. A. (1982). The Harvard Classics: Nine Greek Dramas. Grolier Enterprises Corp.

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