Daily Archives: April 3, 2012

coryphaeus

I’m currently reading Vortex, the third book in Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin trilogy. In it there is a society who are all networked together at the limbic level, so that they tend to have much greater unity of emotion. The central networking node of this society is called the Coryphaeus.

It took me a moment to recall where I knew that word from. It had been a while since I had studied Greek drama. But a coryphaeus is, in Greek drama, the leader of the chorus.

Now, when I’m talking about a chorus, I’m not talking about a group of singers who stand by the side, and I’m not talking about the supporting company of singers and dancers in a Broadway show – though it’s something rather like the latter. The chorus, in Greek drama, is a group of persons germane to the action – often the play was named after them, as in The Trojan Women or The Libation Bearers or almost any play by Aristophanes (The Birds, The Frogs, The Clouds, The Acharnians). They dance together, sing together, speak together – actually, no, the coryphaeus is their spokesperson.

So clearly coryphaeus is related to chorus, right? There’s just that middle bit… But no, actually, there’s no etymological connection. Remember that our ch in Greek-derived words represents the letter chi χ, which in Greek is like the ch in Scottish loch or German bach – we just don’t use that sound in modern English. The c, on the other hand, is just a kappa κ passed through Latin. So this cor and chor are no more related than tail and sail.

In fact, coryphaeus just means “chief” or “leader” in the original – koruphaios, κορυϕαῖος, which comes from koruphé κορυϕή “head” or “top”. So when it’s used to mean more generally the leader of a group, that’s actually not an extension of the chorus sense; it’s just a use of the broader sense.

Oh, and if you want a word that is related to chorus, that would be choragus – also seen as choregus and choragos. It refers to the honorary leader of the chorus, an Athenian citizen who ponied up the drachmas to pay for the chorus. The coryphaeus was the actual leader of the chorus.

Or should I say the koruphaios was. Oh, heck, we get so many of our Greek words by way of Latin! And the Latin spelling and transliteration practices prevail – and all those os (and ous) endings become us, even when they’re not actually nominal suffixes (as in Oidipous, Latinized as Oedipus). For that matter, I could really render that Greek as korufaios; it’s kind of misleading to use ph for that sound that has come down to us as /f/. But it has a different feel, doesn’t it? Compare our philosophy with the Spanish filosofía. The f’s are slender, sinuous; the ph’s are stuffed, fat – or is that phat. And pompous.

But korufaios is more foreign-looking; it has that hard k and the aio bunch. We’re just not used to seeing such things in refined company. Does it really pass the test for something that, as Peter Shaffer had his Mozart say in the play Amadeus (but not in the movie), is so lofty it shits marble? True, actual Greek choruses were not necessarily so elevated in the original. But does not coryphaeus seem more elegant, crisp, refined, professional, philosophical? The aeus is a Latin bunch, unlike the wild aios; the c and y are suitable for presentation at tea-time, perhaps to your aunt Cory.

It is true that this word can be yours cheap, but doesn’t it look so expensive? The shape, the cypher, give you pause; surely you will pay to score it. Spruce ahoy! But of course if you’re footing the bill, that makes you the choragus, not the coryphaeus…