At the time I’m writing this, the EU is saying to Greece, “You’re up!” As in “You’re up to bat,” “Your number’s up,” and, well, “Europe… are you in or what?”
Anand Shukla, who suggested tasting Europe (I’ve tasted Europe, and I’m quite fond of it, but I have not before tasted the word Europe), says “Europe, contrary to my expectations, has nothing to do with either eu or rope.” And that is a pity, since eu in Greek-derived words such as euphony and euthanasia means “good” or “pleasant” and with rope we could talk about “blessed be the ties that bind” with regard to the European Union. And, on the other hand, rope makes me think of ropa, which in Spanish means “clothes”, and since eu sounds like new we might be reminded of the king’s (or emperor’s) new clothes, which is about what some people think of the euro.
Speaking of the euro, events in Greece are becoming not only dramatic but potentially drachmatic (the drachma being the unit of currency that Greece forsook for the euro and is now, at least in some quarters, for seeking to return to). But some people think that the Greeks are being rather selfish (I’m reminded of eu, Portuguese for “I”), and taking all sorts of money from the rest of Europe without so much as saying thanks (in Greek, ευχαριστώ eucharisto – note that in modern Greek that’s pronounced like “efharisto”). One wonders whether that sound “europe” that you hear is just the sound of a colossal burp after digesting all that German dough.
But, then, what exactly is that sound we hear when we say Europe? It just happens that that first syllable varies somewhat between the various European languages: /ju/, /εu/, /ɔɪ/, /ø/, /εv/… Some rounded, some not; some diphthongs, some monophthongs; lips out, lips in, lips wide, lips narrow… And of course the rope is ropa in most countries too. But the pronunciation of the /r/ is another point of variance: retroflex, uvular, trill?
And somehow we expect all these different people, who don’t even pronounce the name of their common geographical unit the same, to get together and agree on all sorts of important things? Well, it’s not impossible. Or is it?
But where does this word come from, anyway? As befits any truly epic name, no one is entirely sure. It may come from Europa, who, according to Greek myth, was a Phoenician princess – descended from Io (the cow-horned maid) – who (like Io) was seduced by Zeus (a common occurrence in Greek myth), who came to her in the form of a bull. Mmm, yup, she took the bull. And the bull took her. (“Sometimes, señor, you ride the bull, and sometimes the bull rides you.”)
She also (again like Io) gave her name to a moon of Jupiter, by the way – the moon that is covered with ice, very smooth ice, which suggests that there is water beneath it. Which suggests that there may be life there. Not just in the mind of Arthur C. Clarke (read 2010 – it wasn’t historical fiction when it was written), but in a not altogether unreasonable estimation.
And where does Europa’s name come from? Uncertain. Many origins have been proposed. A longstanding account, now in doubt, is that it comes from words meaning “broad eyes” or “broad face”. (Pity it wasn’t “bright eyes” – then I would have had a Bonnie Tyler tangent.) Or perhaps “open-minded”. On the other hand, it may have been from Akkadian for “go down, set [as in the sun]“.
But of course, for most people, Europe has flavours that have nothing to do with mythic damsels or moons of Jupiter (don’t forget, incidentally, that Jupiter was just what the Romans called Zeus… so the two seduced maidens, Io and Europa, are eternally mooning over their seducer). If someone mentions Europe to me, I immediately think of my favourite place to travel to, a place with a cultural depth that I simply can’t get in Canada (well, maybe in Quebec, to some extent), a place that is home to the cultural mythos that I have inherited, a place I idolized and fantasized about before first visiting at age 16, a place my honeymoon and most of my other best trips have been to. Yes, yes, I know, for people who live there it’s just as ordinary as Canada is for me. The grass is greener etc. But all aesthetics are personal.
Which also means that Europe can have very different meanings for other people. I know that many Americans think of it as some kind of socialist hell (I will resist further comment, and let me tell you, that’s a real effort on my part). Some Britons see it as a set that does not at all include them; others disagree. Your own personal images, expectations, and experiences will certainly shape the flavour of this word for you. Common, important words like this have a markedly different history for every person.
Nor does it help that Europe names a continent that is really somewhat arbitrarily (at least recently, as in since the continents drifted to their current locations) a continent. If you think of Europe as the head and Asia as the body, you have to confess that there is no neck. At. All. Somehow Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan are Asian, while just over the mountains Russia and Chechnya and Ossetia are European… but Russia runs across the Ural mountains (and a non-salient line that stretches from them to the Caspian Sea) into Asia. It’s the largest country on both continents, without having to jump across water. (Turkey is also on both continents, but in its case they are separated by the Bosporus, which comes from Greek for “cow’s ford”, supposedly named – oh, here it comes again – for Io having crossed there.)
One thing is certain, still: whether Greece wants to be part of Europe or not, whether the sun is setting on the euro and the EU or not, Europe (and of course Europa) is from Greek.