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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) poems or verses mixing sadness with celebration

Dramatic masks of comedy and tragedy, origin of threnothriambic poetry


A mouthful of a word popped up on Haggard Hawks this morning, alongside its equally sizeable definition: a threnothriambic verse one in which sadness and lamentation is mixed with triumph and celebration.

That’s something of a tricky word to get your head around, never mind your mouth, so let’s take it apart. Threnos was an Ancient Greek word for lamentation, or a funeral dirge. Derived from that (alongside the same ancient root as the word ode), a threnody is a song or poem of lamentation, as any good literature student will doubtless know.

At the opposite end, a thriambos in Ancient Greek was a song or hymn celebrating Dionysus, the debauched god of wine, winemaking, and all round excess. Thriambos, incidentally, is a distant ancestor of the word triumph itself, though precisely where it comes from is something of a mystery. Popular history would have you believe it’s related to thrion, an old Greek word for the fig-tree (perhaps in reference to Dionysus’ role as a god of the harvest), but in truth, no one is entirely sure.

Regardless of that, put those two ancient roots together, though and you’ll be left with threnothriambic. It’s not a particularly artful word, and the Oxford English Dictionary (as well as labelling it nothing more than a “humorous” invention) records just one isolated use of it, in an anonymous satirical pamphlet, puzzlingly titled S’too Him, Bayes, that was published in 1673. (S’too was a call used to urge on hunting hounds, and Bayes was a satirical nickname applied to the playwright and poet John Dryden—though the author was actually lampooning the English polemicist, and future Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Parker.)

From that isolated and somewhat obscure first use, the word failed to catch on in the language, and remains something of a linguistic oddity today.

#poetry #theatre #greek #literature

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