It was April Fool’s Day last weekend, which we marked over on the HH Twitter feed with a day’s worth of fool-related words. And among them was the verb Boeotize:
Aside from hogging all the vowels (ignore the first O; it’s pronounced “bee-oh-tize”) this word is a lot more interesting that it looks. It derives from Boeotia, the name of a region of Greece, just north of Athens, centred around the ancient city of Thebes.
Although it remains an important region of Greece today, Boeotia’s history stretches right back into antiquity and legend. The region is home to Mount Helicon, one of the supposed homes of the Muses. The ancient hero Cadmus and Semele, the mother of Dionysus, were both supposed to have been born in Boeotia. Plutarch, Hesiod, Corinna and Pindar too were Boeotian by birth. But despite that illustrious history, proverbially the region wasn’t always held in such high regard—both the name Boeotia and the Boeotian people themselves were synonymous with foolishness, artlessness, crudeness, and stupidity.
Quite where that pejorative association came from is unclear. One theory claims that as the Boeotians were chiefly agricultural workers (the name Boeotia derives from boes, the Greek for “cattle”), they were popularly held to be unlearned and illiterate, with little time for art or higher learning. Another explanation claims that the region’s characteristically oppressively humid climate led to tales of the local populace being just as dense as the air around them. But no matter where this association came from, the more erudite and cosmopolitan Athenians in nearby Attica—who had long rivalry with their neighbours to the north—relished it.
Boeotian pig was a popular Ancient Greek epithet for a crude, boorish person. Boeotian ears were ears unable to appreciate fine music or rhetoric. Being Boeotian was synonymous with slow-wittedness and naïvety. And to Boeotize was to make or become stupid.
That latter term was probably coined by Simon Parr, an eighteenth–nineteenth century English cleric and schoolmaster, who wrote to a friend in 1789 to bemoan that, having moved to a new parish in rural Norfolk, he had little left to read:
Do you hear any literary news? for I live quite in Boeotia, and Boeotize daily, and, what is worse, I shall not visit you Attic folks in the spring.