Daily Archives: May 10, 2011

discobolus

Could this, by any chance, be a myriad-mirrored thing that hangs from the ceiling and scatters light in the darkness at dance clubs? Mmm, no. Not even if the thing in question were shaped like a plate (or some kind of bolus) rather than a ball.

It is the same disc, mind you: from Greek diskos, “disc”. In a disco the discs that are being tossed around have music on them. In discobolus, there’s no need to discuss much or dance around the topic: the disc is a discus, a heavy plate-like thing that was originally hurled for the purpose of hurting the enemy but now, in the hands of students everywhere, is at least as good for hurting oneself (or even, if the grip slips at the wrong time, for auto-discombobulation).

But discobolus does not refer to the discus itself; it’s what you call the dude who is tossing the discus. The bolus is a Latinization of bolos, “thrower”, which is related to ballistics and other words with the ball (βαλλ) root that refers to throwing.

The oral gesture of this word has a sort of match to the act of throwing a discus: it starts at the tip of tongue, like the backswing, then bounces back to the /k/ and releases, and sails across the mouth to impact at /b/ and bounce and flip a bit at /l/, finally lying flat at /s/.

I find the sound of this word to have a bit of a wobbliness about it, not unlike the average discus in mid-flight. That’s thanks to the obol in the middle, which rhymes with wobble because in Latin and English renditions of Greek words we tend automatically to put the stress on the antepenult (third-last syllable). This in spite of the fact that in the Greek δισκοβόλος the stress is on the second-last syllable, making it sound even more like disco ball.

Discobolus also has some letter-form iconicity: the d like the arm with the discus in hand, the co like a cartoon drawing of a disk in motion, the b like it first hitting into ground, edge-on, and then it bounces out at o. Or you could come up with other narratives, but in the main it’s gonna be man meets disc, man picks up disc, man hurls disc, disc obeys the laws of physics.

The place you’re most likely to see discobolus is not at the Olympic games or other track-and-field events; they use more standard English terminology. No, you’ll see it in a museum, on the placard for a statue of some buff nude dude all wound up in a twist with a disc ready for hurling. Come to think of it, he probably wouldn’t look out of place in some discothèques…

I wrote this note without remembering I had already done this word once. Well, I don’t have time to write a whole new one now!