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  • Richard Farr

Spartan talk

Above: Edgar Degas and Jacques Louis David with competing erotic visions of the Spartans. Or Lacedaemonians.

Rooting about in Thucydides, as one does in times like these, it occurs to me that everyone refers to the tough cookies of the central Peloponnese as "Spartans," but in the not very distant past everyone called them "Lacedaemonians." Google Ngram concurs:

(This seems to suggest however that between about 1860 and 1930 nobody said much about them at all.) Looking for an etymology of Lakedaemon(ian), I don't find much beyond "inhabitants of Laconia," plus the suggestion that it's not really daemon = spirit but a corruption of a Doric form of demos = people. But along the way I'm reminded of the great story about where we get "laconic" from. Allegedly, Philip of Macedon sends a message saying that if he enters Laconia he will raze the city of Sparta to the ground.

The reply: "If."

This in turn reminds me of Victor Hugo, on a well-deserved holiday after sending Les Miserables to the printing press.

He may not have been laconic in the book, but apparently he had run out of words. Wanting to know how his fat new child was doing in the marketplace, he sent a telegram to his publisher: "?"

The response from Paris: "!"

Perhaps we should all - not only our Dear Leader, master of the word salad - strip down to the bare essentials and receive training in the laconic arts.


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