You can put this in the strange but true bin

These days I am reading for my comprehensive examinations and almost daily I come across something that makes me silently chant the refrain:  There is nothing new under the sun.  Well yesterday’s discovery was a real head scratcher and one that might cause some blushing for those with tender ears and modest tongues.  So for those whose eyes cannot bear the sight of things unsightly I forewarn you: stop reading.

For the titillated: read on.

Sometimes you hear slang and you can sense that it is neological or you have a vague memory of a time when you are pretty sure that you did not hear it.  Like, da bomb, boo-yeah, or fo’ shizzle.  Well there is a certain slang phrase that has sounded new to me the few (rather unpleasant) times that I have heard it said and a quick check of the OED and Urban Dictionary confirmed its recent coinage and heyday (20th century, especially the last few decades).  Well you can imagine my surprise when I read this very slang in a text composed sometime in the late 1st or very early 2nd century CE.  IN GREEK!  Yeah, that’s right, the exact slang in highfalutin Attic Greek (Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions).  For you Greek nerds, the uppity LSJ doesn’t even deign to offer a definition for the phrase although one hardly needs to be given.  I read the sentence and then I read it again to make sure I wasn’t Freuding the thing up and it was right there to behold.

The word?   ἀποτρίβεσθαι in its masculine singular accusative present middle participial form ἀποτριβόμενον.  And it is taking this as its direct object: τὸ αἰδοῖον.  Yeah, you read that correctly.  Hard to believe isn’t it?  I am still dumbfounded.  I wonder how many school-boys tittered or turned red over this passage as they read it at boarding schools and prep academies during that briefest window of time when rich kids still learned Greek and the English version of the slang had gained sufficient currency to be commonly used by teenagers.  I can only imagine the reaction to this line of lines: τὸν Διογένη τὸ αἰδοῖον ἀποτριβόμενον ἐν φανερῷ.  Holy smokes.

Διογένη=Diogenes (the famous Cynic philosopher)

τὸ αἰδοῖον=his package



ἐν φανερῷ=in the open

Diogenes was rubbing [one] off.  Publicly.

You can’t make this stuff up.

7 Replies to “You can put this in the strange but true bin”

  1. the wonders of grad studies.

    so have you forwarded this to OED and Urban Dictionary? or does there need to be an actual etymological connection for it to count in the eyes of english lexicographers?

  2. g.wesley,

    I think that you are thinking to narrowly. OED and Urban Dictionary are bush-league. This has Classical Philology written all over it. Helloooo, Tenure!

  3. Hey, I just learned from the Wikipedia that Harvey Levin (of TMZ fame) has a JD from the University of Chicago. Go figure.

    Anyhow. Rameumptom and B.Russ, although the post is meant to be humorous there actually is a fairly important back-story and ethical point to Diogenes’ open air display. This wasn’t just a classic gotcha episode.

    Plutarch in his Stoic Self-Contradictions attacks various Stoic philosophers and tenets by showing inconsistencies and self contradictions (Plutarch was a Platonist). At one point he is assailing the famed Stoic Chrysippus for his assertion that pleasure taking in food and drink is superfluous. Plutarch shows how Chrysippus is being inconsistent with this ethical stance by noting that Chrysippus praised our man Diogenes for the occasion of his public self-gratification (Plutarch’s argument being that Chrysippus is praising a man who indulges in pleasure when Chrysippus asserts that pleasure is superfluous).

    Plutarch totally misses both the point of Chrysippus’ praise of Diogenes and the point of Diogenes’ actions. Diogenes was masturbating publicly and he did so because he saw a “teachable moment.” The teaching is born out by the rest of the story: while gratifying himself Diogenes says to the onlookers “If only I could thus rub out (here is the pun) the famine/hunger in my stomach.” What he meant was that hunger is indeed easy to curb with just a crust of bread and some water, just as much effort as something like, say, masturbation. In other words, people should quit feeling anxious and constrained by indifferent concerns like food or sexual gratification since virtue and freedom are the only goals worthy of concern.

    (Cynic) Teachable moments are special.

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