June 10, 2002
Who Remembers Gomorrha?

Saturday's post on the etymology of sodomy prompted reader Paul Wright to ask:

Ever wonder what the people in Gomorrah were doing to rate destruction?

I wrote an answer in the comments, but have now moved it here, partly so more readers will see it, partly so I can format it properly. (One of these days I'll learn how to enable HTML code in the comments.) Here, slightly edited and much expanded, is what I wrote six hours ago:

Not only were they obliterated by fire from heaven, the poor Gomorrhans missed out on the lexicographic immortality earned by their neighbors the Sodomites.

According to the O.E.D. (quoted from memory), some people have thought that gonorrhea is actually spelled 'gomorrhea', and named after Gomorrha, but they are wrong. The word comes from Greek gon- as in "gonads" and rhe- meaning "flow" (or "ooze" or "drip", I guess, not that I would know), the latter root also found in "rheostat", "diarrhea", and "logorrhea".

"Syphilis", on the other hand, is a made-up mythological name, and comes from a neoLatin epic poem by Girolamo Fracastoro (late XVth and early XVIth century) about a youth named Syphilus who catches the disease and is cured with magic herbs supplied by the nymph Syphilis, who is, I think, his mother. (I may be wrong on some of the details: my copy of the poem is in storage in Ohio. And no, I haven't gotten around to reading it yet.)

And speaking of ethnic slurs, the full title of Fracastoro's poem, much admired at the time for its elegant Latin, was Syphilis, sive morbus gallicus, which translates as Syphilis, or the French disease. I had always heard that it was the English who called syphilis "the French disease", while the French called it "the Italian disease" and the Italians called it "the Naples disease". (What Neapolitans called it was not recorded.) It appears that some Italians, like Fracastoro, also called it "the French disease".

The whole subject of ethnic names is interesting. Many of them are unknown in the countries after which they are named. "French toast" is not French: my grandmother always claimed it was a Scottish invention (plausible) and is properly called "eggy bread" (possible). I don't think French fries are French, either.

Twenty-some years ago, I discussed this topic with an English professor -- I mean a professor of Classics who came from England, not a professor of English literature. In the middle of the conversation, he suddenly burst out: "Maybe you can tell me. What is the English vice? Is it masturbation? Shyness? I've always wondered." As a student, I was too bashful to answer the question, not least because I was unsure (as I still am) whether 'le vice anglais' refers primarily to buggery or flagellation. I did think it was amusing how much he underestimated the hostility of those who assign names to vices. Whatever the English vice is, it's a lot worse than he had imagined.

Coming soon -- as soon as I can get my hands on the right dictionaries -- ancient names for ethnic vices. The Greek verb lesbiazein, "to act like an inhabitant of Lesbos", doesn't mean what you think it means. If I can get hold of the information, I'll make a little match-up quiz.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at June 10, 2002 12:37 AM

I should point out that the sin of Sodom was less homosexual rape than the mistreatment of guests -- basically, Yahweh punished the cities of the plain for the same crime as Zeus punished the Phrygians. The two myths -- of Lot, and of Philemon and Baucis -- have some interesting parallels. Same crime (lack of hospitality, to angels on one hand, to Zeus and Hermes on the other) if different punishments (though legend has it Sodom and Gomorrah lie under the Dead Sea now), even to having people in both circumstances turn into inanimate objects (a pillar of salt in Israel, an oak and a linden in Greece).

Posted by: Mac Thomason on June 10, 2002 12:35 PM

In Spain they talk about "disciplina inglesa"; "un francÚs" refers to fellatio; "griego" is buggery; "una cubana" is intermammary intercourse; a "bar americano" is a place with available female companionship.

According to some sources Barcelona suffered the Old World's first syphilis epidemic in 1493 when Columbus's men brought it back from the New World; it was then carried to the 1494 French siege of Naples, where soldiers from all of Western Europe picked it up and brought it home.

Posted by: John Chappell on June 10, 2002 03:17 PM

Would cretin (derived from chretien, Christian) count? Or is it too new?

Posted by: Geoffrey Barto on June 11, 2002 03:33 AM

Surely it's spanking not wanking, isn't it? The English vice, I mean.

Posted by: Daniel Jacobson on June 11, 2002 11:50 PM

I just read Bernard Lewis' "What Went Wrong" and he mentions that the Islamic world refers to syphilis as "the Frankish disease."

See you tomorrow night.

Posted by: Jack on June 13, 2002 10:07 AM