January 27th, 2003

Fishy Circumstances

In the Ruins of Babylon

Last week, I had dinner with a postdoc student in my department who is one of perhaps ten people worldwide who specializes in Babylonian astronomy. He's here to study with Alexander Jones, a professor in the same subject with whom I took a course a few years back on his area of specialization. What was particularly memorable about the dinner, however, was our discussion of the archaeological search for more information on the astronomy of Babylon in modern Iraq, where once was Babylon.

John mentioned how, unlike other Muslim leaders, Saddam Hussein has modeled himself to large degree on the kings of Bablylon - i.e. pagan rulers, but ones who maintained substantial, spectacular, and well-known empires within the lands of his own country. To that aim, he's funded an archaeological project at Nenavah, I believe it was, to continue research on the subject. This effort is undermined, however, by one of his most spectacular building projects, a palace on the ruins of Babylon. H.D. Miller currently has a discussion of this palace and its archaeological damage, with hopes that the palace will not exist in the near future. (He cites several articles about the palace and situation, including this one.)

After last week's discussion however, this made me wince even more. John noted that the best thing for the archaeological remains is to be simply left alone. The more damage that is done to them in any form, the more they are rendered useless as evidence of the past. Since historians of Babylonian astronomy rely upon cuneiform tables, the best thing for them at the moment is just to be left in the ground. In part during the Gulf War, the Baghdad Museum, once home to numerous cuneiform tablets, has been pillaged, and many of those tables are now for sale in antique dealers' shops worldwide. Indeed, as of about six months ago, the British Museum was in negotiations with the Museum in Baghdad to repatriate many of their tablets. John expressed fervent hope that the repatriation had not yet happened, especially if there is to be war.

Some of the worst damage, however, was, he reported, done with the best of intentions by bombers during the Gulf War, who, seeing them from the air, believed some of the subterranean archaeological structures to be airplane landing strips, and bombed them accordingly.

(If you're in Toronto and interested in the subject, there's a daylong symposium on February 8th on the subject of ancient near eastern astronomy at which both A. Jones and J. Steele will be speaking.)
Fishy Circumstances

On a Pale Horse

I just read that Disney has bought rights to and started to cast and find a script writing for Piers Anthony's On a Pale Horse. I haven't read any Piers Anthony books in years, but of all of his works I've read, I remember the immortality series most fondly and respectfully. I was interested in personifications long before I encountered his series, and it was their personifying interests as well as their mythic nature which helped to interest me.

My vague memory and definite hunch is that Anthony tends to err on the side of predictable personificatory iconography, so I bet that somewhere in On a Pale Horse there's a sandglass. I bet there'll be at least one in the movie as well.
Fishy Circumstances

Word use: medieval and byzantine

In the last day or so, both H.D. Miller and the Cranky Professor have lamented the frequent usage of the word 'medieval' to mean barbaric, as well as the use of the word 'byzantine' to mean 'bad politics', usually used more simply of complicated paperwork and administration. While I sympathize with both complaints, particularly the former (as I am no scholar of Byzantium), I wondered how old these spins of meaning were for these two words.

The OED (2nd edition, 1989) definites byzantine as
"Belonging to Byzantium or Constantinople; also, reminiscent of the manner, style, or spirit of Byzantine politics. Hence, intricate, complicated; inflexible, rigid, unyielding."

Its earliest use to mean intricate, complicated etc. was in 1937. I quote the two earliest citations for this use.
1937 Koestler Spanish Testament iv. 75 In the old days people often smiled at the Byzantine structure of the Spanish Army.

1965 Economist 25 Dec. 1404/3 From the byzantine procedural caution of the approach work [to the Common Market] on both sides, it seems that substantive issues are still beyond the diplomats' grasp.

So, whilst irritating, the meaning has been settling in for a good 65 years now.

Strikingly, the same edition of the OED (1989, remember) doesn't mention any negative connotations for the adjective 'medieval'. As of the earlier 1984 Concise OED, it's also defined as 'old-fashioned'. The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (1999) * cites the second meaning for the word 'medieval', namely "2. (colloq.) old-fashioned." The Concise OED (2001) ** is even more emphatic: "informal: very old-fashioned or outdated." I don't have any earlier dictionaries handy with which to trace back the 'old-fashioned' meaning, but a handy 1947 thesaurus listed 'medieval', along with things like 'pre-Raphaelite' in its old/ancient section. As of mid-century, the word had 'ye olde time' connotations, but doesn't yet seem to be a synonym even for 'old fashioned.' None of these definitions, however, equate the word with 'barbaric' or anything other than simply 'old.'

Webster's 3rd International (1993) is more forthcoming, and actually offers a source of an early use of this meaning of the word:
displayed a medieval carburetor ---Nigel Dennis"

I don't know about you, but I have NO idea who Nigel Dennis is.

Apparently he is also quoted for the following words: faintly, greenhorn, involuntary, megaphone, no-man's-land, nullify, petrify, plainclothes, ponderment, querulous, splay, stumpy, testy, as well as uses of 'to' and 'until'. At a guess, and a look through the local library catalog, he's the Nigel Forbes Dennis, born 1912, and author of a number of literarily-oriented books, plays, and dramatic essays.

At least this means that the 'medieval' as 'old-fashioned' meaning is a twentieth-century one. 'Barbaric' is clearly much, much, much more recent a meaning. The question is - just how much more recent?

* Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (Oxford University Press, 1999. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 27 January 2003 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/entry.html?subview=main&entry=t21.019042>)

** "medieval" The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Judy Pearsall. (Oxford University Press, 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. 27 January 2003 <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/entry.html?subview=main&entry=t23.034575>)