(adj.) having attractively-shaped buttocks
If you’re callipygian, then you have attractively-shaped buttocks.
Given a meaning like that, you might be forgiven for thinking this word is a recent invention, concocted just to flesh out (no pun intended) those ever more popular lists of peculiar words that go viral online. But, no, for once this word actually has quite a reliable and interesting heritage behind it (no pun intended).
In English, the earliest record of the word callipygian we know about dates back to 1831, when a travel writer named Andrew Bigelow (no p—never mind) took it upon himself to categorize Italy’s three most famous statues of Venus as the “Calipygean [sic], Capitoline, and Medician”—that is, those on display in Naples, Rome and Florence, respectively.
That word callipygian was not Bigelow’s own. The Venusian statue on display in Naples has been variously known as the Venus Callipyge or Aphrodite Kallipygos since antiquity. The name literally means ‘Venus of the beautiful buttocks’, and is a reference both to the statues, er, obvious attributes, and to its peculiar stance: the Naples Venus Callipyge stands with her shawl pulled to one side, and her head tilted over her shoulder, looking down towards her own—shall we say, assets. (Pun very much intended.)
The Venus’ appearance hasn’t always been to everyone’s taste, however. Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest Fathers of the Christian Church, came to view the statue as a sign of the Ancient Greeks’ lustfulness and licentiousness after his conversion to Christianity:
Do not the Argives [i.e. the people of Ancient Argos] sacrifice to Aphrodite Peribaso, the protectress; and the Athenians to Aphrodite Hetaera, the courtesan; and the Syracusans to Aphrodite Kallipygos ... The Sicyonians [i.e. the people of Sicyon, a city in the Peloponnese] reverence this deity, whom they have constituted the god of the muliebria—the patron of filthiness—and religiously honour as the author of licentiousness.
Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus: An Exhortation (c. AD 195)
The statue’s risqué stance, however, was not always quite so noticeable. The original Greek statue was apparently presented thus, with her head turned over her shoulder—and the Roman replica that replaced it did the same. But when the statue was rediscovered in the 1500s, it was missing its head; a replica was ordered, but that head was reattached looking forwards. Whether that was an oversight by the restorer, or a coy and puritanical sign of the times, is unclear. But it wasn’t until the 1700s that the change was rectified, Venus’ rear gaze was restored, and the statue’s name made sense once more.
Etymologically, there’s a little less to report here than the statue’s intriguing history might suggest. Callos was simply the Greek word for ‘beauty’ (and is the origin of words like callisthenics, calligraphy and kaleidoscope). Pyge was the Greek word for the backside or rump (which is why creatures with their feet far back on their bodies, like ducks, were once known as pygopods—or ‘buttock-foots’.) Put those two together, and you have a word now plucked from obscure artistic commentary and criticism, and hauled into the twenty-first century.