Tuesday, September 29, 2009

WOTD: Hysteropotmos

I was thumbing through a copy of the World Dictionary of Foreign Expressions (which I picked up recently at a library book sale for all of $1), when an interesting word snagged my eye: hystero-potmos, defined as “[a] person who, after being presumed dead, surprisingly comes back home after a long period of absence. A person who, after being presumed killed in battle, escapes from captivity and surprisingly returns home” [1]. Readers of Tolkien will of course remember the following comical scene:

He had arrived back in the middle of an auction! There was a large notice in black and red hung on the gate, stating that on June the Twenty-second Messrs. Grubb, Grubb, and Burrowes would sell by auction the effects of the late Bilbo Baggins Esquire, of Bag-End, Underhill, Hobbiton. Sale to commence at ten o’clock sharp. It was now nearly lunch-time, and most of the things had already been sold, for various prices from next to nothing to old songs (as is not unusual at auctions). Bilbo’s cousins the Sackville-Bagginses were, in fact, busy measuring his rooms to see if their own furniture would fit. In short Bilbo was “Presumed Dead,” and not everybody that said so was sorry to find the presumption wrong.

.....The return of Mr. Bilbo Baggins created quite a disturbance, both under the Hill and over the Hill, and across the Water; it was a great deal more than a nine days’ wonder. The legal bother, indeed, lasted for years. It was quite a long time before Mr. Baggins was in fact admitted to be alive again. The people who had got specially good bargains at the Sale took a deal of convincing; and in the end to save time Bilbo had to buy back quite a lot of his own furniture. Many of his silver spoons mysteriously disappeared and were never accounted for. Personally he suspected the Sackville-Bagginses. On their side they never admitted that the returned Baggins was genuine, and they were not on friendly terms with Bilbo ever after. They really had wanted to live in his nice hobbit-hole so very much.

This was my immediate thought when I read the definition. Apparently the word survives today (just barely) in narrow legal parlance, used in just such situations as Mr. Baggins found himself! But the origins of the word go back to Greek (and later, Roman) antiquity. Variously translated as “later-fated” or “double-fated” (more properly, the latter is deuteropotmos), the component etymons (so says the WDFE) are ϋστερον “later, latter” + πότμος “fate, death”. (Πότμος, not to be confused with ποταμός “river”.) Now I’m not an expert in Greek, but my recollection is that the usual word for death is θάνατος (as in the poem “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant, which I still dimly recall from high school English :). Are fate and death really etymology linked, as suggested here? It certainly does makes sense.

The great Liddell / Scott lexicon of Classical Greek formalizes the connection. It defines πότμος as “that which befalls one, one’s lot, destiny, usu[ally] one’s evil destiny, a mishap, esp[ecially] like μοϊρα and μόρος, death”, following which are given a number of references to the literature, including Homer, Pindar, and Euripides [2]. Homer, of course, is the most obvious: what is Odysseus if not the archetypal hysteropotmos? The other two words given here, μόρος and μοϊρα, deserve a footnote. The first is defined by Liddell and Scott as roughly synonymous with πότμος, “fate, destiny, death”, and its etymology takes us, along with μοϊρα, to the proper noun, Μοϊρα “Moera, the goddess of fate [...] often in Hom[er] the goddess of death” [3]. Normally portrayed in the plural, as a Triple Goddess, the Moirae are the Fates, the “apportioners”, measuring out the lives of men. Once they became fixed at three, they were named Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the Spinner, Measurer, and Cutter of the thread of life. In the case of hysteropotmoi, perhaps Atropos was taking a well-deserved nap. ;)

I said πότμος was not to be confused with ποταμός, but I wonder, could there be a metaphorical relationship between fate and rivers? Liddell and Scott give no such indication in their entry for the latter [4], but rivers are full of mythological and liminal significance: the Styx (Στύξ) most of all. It makes sense to suppose they might share a common origin, but is there any evidence? Ah well, something for further investigation, I suppose.

The oldest reference I have found to the word hysteropotmos itself (apart from its use in antiquo) is in the Allgemeines Fremdwörterbuch, an 1829 lexicon of foreign words in German. The definition given there is, “ein Zurückgeschiffter, wiederbelebter Scheintodter, vom Tode Erstandener” [5]. If my scant German hasn’t failed me (and if I’m not misreading the Fraktur), this is, “someone who has come back, revived from being apparently dead, risen from death” — German speakers, please feel free to improve on this.

The word has been around for quite a long time, and it’s surprisingly useful (especially for describing the literary motif of the Zurückgeschiffter) — but the word has been all but forgotten. It is essentially dead. Perhaps this word itself should be brought back, made verbum redivivum, to become an hysteropotmos itself. That would be a beautiful irony, wouldn’t it?

[1] Adeleye, Gabriel G., and Kofi Acquah-Dadzie. World Dictionary of Foreign Expressions: A Resource for Readers and Writers. Eds. Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James T. McDonough. Wauconda, Ill: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1999, p. 171.

[2] Liddell and Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1870, p. 1229.

[3] Ibid., p. 943, italics original.

[4] Ibid., p. 1228.

[5] Heyse, Johann Christian August. Allgemeines Fremdwörterbuch, oder Handbuch zum Verstehen und Vermeiden der in unserer Sprache mehr oder minder gebräuchlichen Fremden Ausdrücke [etc.]. Hannover: Hahn, 1829 , p. 361.


  1. The word, I note, is not in the Oxford English dictionary. I imagine this is because, despite its having been cobbled together out of Greek, nearly all of its usages are in German texts; there seems scant evidence that it was ever adopted by English-speaking writers, even classicists.

    Also, doesn't the "hysteros-" bit of this word mean "womb"? Then again, I'm no expert in Greek either ...

  2. Hi, Russell. Thank you for checking the OED and letting us know. But on what basis do you say nearly all the uses are in German? Not on the basis of my post here, I think.

    For hysteropotmos/oi, Google Books — hardly exhaustive, I know, but giving a reasonable sampling — returns a fair number of occurences, of which it appears 7 in German, 3 in French, 2 are in Latin, 2 in Spanish, 1 each in Swedish and Danish — and 25 are in English. It’s certainly likely that Google Books places a heavier emphasis on English books than on those in other languages, but if you have a basis for saying that “nearly all the usages are in German texts”, I’d be interested to hear about it.

    As for the other comment, a good thought! According to Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary, ὑστέρα “womb” came later, and probably also derived from ὕστερος “later, lower”.

  3. Your translation from German is quite accurate, except for the meaning of Zurückgeschiffter. This derives from schiffen (better do not consult en.wiktionary.org at this point!), related to Schiff ‘ship’. Schiffen could be ascribed the meaning ‘to go/be transported by ship’. Geschiffter ‘person transported by ship (past participle geschifft + agentive ending -er)’. Finally, plus zurück ‘back’ this means ‘a person brought back by ship’.
    Zurückgeschiffter is not a usual compound in German (anymore?), though. Try a google search. (Nor is schiffen used with the ship-related meaning very often nowadays, I think.)

    I hope I was able to help.

  4. Eosphoros, very helpful! Thank you!

    So Zurückgeschiffter seems to refer to exactly the kind of return Odysseus made in The Odyssey: a return from presumed death by ship. And I did try the Google search. Isn’t that funny: just my blog and the Allgemeines Fremdwörterbuch. :)

  5. Thanks for your reply, and thanks to Eosphoros as well for the etymology of Zurückgeschiffter.

    Google Books may be random in terms of coverage, but I'd searched just "hysteropotmos" (not -oi), which had given me 7 books in German, 6 in English (2 of which were reference books), 2 in French and 1 in Latin.

    So womb came later -- or lower! I had though that there might be some connection with "hysteria," which medieval physicians attribute to a "wandering womb," giving something either like "destined to wander" or "twice born" or some such. Apparently neither is accurate, though there's a sort of fun to be had in false etymologies, the more creative the better.

  6. Yes, folk etymology has its place around the hearth, that’s for sure. And often, such stories are much more interesting than the real thing! I’ve heard some really outlandish ones in my time. But perhaps that’s a topic for another post.

  7. I don't know if "potmos" and "potamos" have a metaphorical relationship (what a marvellous idea!), but they certainly have an etymological one. :)

  8. Do they, Eva? I haven’t seen anything to demonstrate a definitive relationship between these two words. Liddell and Scott say that πότμος derives from the root ΠΕΤ, but that ποταμός probably derives from the root ΠΟ.

    On the other hand, the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (edited by the estimable philoloist Calvert Watkins) suggests that ποταμός derives from the Indo-European pet “to rush, fly”. I can’t tell whether πότμος derives from the IE root pŏl “to fall”; Watkins doesn’t give the Greek in this case. And neither one seems to be related to pō(i) “to drink” (source of English potable).

    Do you have anything else to back up an etymological connection between them? I’d be curious to hear about it.

  9. An addition: doing a very cursory search, I did see one theory linking these two. Walter Whiter’s 1825 Etymologicon Universale, Volume II, p. 70: “The origin of Potmos, (Ποτμοσ,) belongs, I imagine, to Potamos, (Ποταμοσ,) from the Dangerous accident of Sinking into the Quagmire, or Watery Spot” (italics original).

    So there’s at least one earlier example of the hypothesis in print. It smells of folk etymology, though, doesn’t it? As I said before, metaphorically, the idea makes sense. I’m just not sure there’s sufficient philological evidence.

  10. Yes, sir, I believe they do. :)

    "Potmos" derives from the verb "pipto" (πίπτω) - "to fall, tumble down". In Modern Greek it's "pefto" (πέφτω). /IE pet-, petə- : ptē-, ptō-, Hellenic ptā-, according to Pokorny's Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch/. And so does "potamos" (according to Babiniotis' Lexiko tis Neas Ellinikis glossas).

    πότμος = that which befalls everyone, hence fate, doom, death

    pet-: aor. epeton (-son), peripeteia
    qualitative ablaut pot-: potmos, but also potamos (pot-amos, as in oul-amos, thal-amos)

    potamos = falling (water)

  11. Hi, Eva. It could be! Those are a couple of pretty good references (neither of which do I have ready to hand myself). I’ve wanted a copy of Pokorny for ages, but Watkins cites him often (and disagrees often) in his American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. The main limitation of that work is that it cites primarily English words (though of course, hippopotamus is both English and Greek ;). Watkins indicates Pokorny’s forms in his own analysis and extrapolation of roots; in his book, he (Watkins) differentiates between two distinct roots shaped like √petə, one meaning “to rush, to fly”, the other meaning “to spread”. It’s the former to which Watkins connects ποταμός, but either sense seems a little more intuitive that the sense of “to fall, tumble down”. Almost all rivers do the former two, but only a few rivers do the latter.

    I’m still not completely convinced, but I’m at least satisfied it’s a serious etymological contender. As I said, I’m far from expert in Greek. Thanks very much for sharing those other two sources. :)

  12. I know Watkins disagrees with much of what Pokorny wrote. Babiniotis, the most prominent linguist in Greece, in his turn, disagrees with Mr. Watkins. I dare not argue with any of them. :)

    "Potmos" does not necessarily mean "death". There's ευποτμος ("prosperous", lit. "good-fortuned"), κακοποτμος ("ill-fated")...

  13. I dare not argue with any of them. :)

    Yes, good point. They are certainly all better qualified than most (any?) of us. I wouldn’t pretend to the qualifications of even the least of the classically trained philologists. I am an amateur only (though I hope in the best sense of that word).

    "Potmos" does not necessarily mean "death". There's ευποτμος ("prosperous", lit. "good-fortuned"), κακοποτμος ("ill-fated")...

    Right. I tried to convey the same (more or less) above. Its primary meaning is “fate, destiny, that which befalls one”.

  14. So am I. I am just a mere Ranger and a regular visitor to your blog. :)

    Thank you, gentlemen, for the interesting discussion. :)

  15. And thank you, m’Lady, for the valuable contributions to it. I always enjoy discussions on uncertain etymologies. Indeed, apart from matters of Tolkien, etymology is one reason I started this blog in the first place. :)

  16. I had no idea there was a word for this. I always learn so much from your blog. :)

  17. Thanks, Cat Bastet. There are a lot of words like this, as it turns out. And I always learn a lot researching my posts, too. I hadn’t known this word myself, and my commenters often have wonderful things to add (as on this occasion). I love the conversation!