2010-07-10

GTAGE: Losing One's Religion

Today's installment of the Golden Treasury of Anglo–Greek Expressions (GTAGE) takes religion in vain. That does not mean the expressions I'm going through are blasphemous per se—although if taking religion lightly is not your thing, you shouldn't be reading further. If anything, the expressions show how central a role Orthodox Christianity has played in how Greek saw the world and their society, just as Shakespeare's English betrays a lot of popular Catholicism, that was slow in dying in England.

Most of the translations this time around aren't all that jocular, but instead are quite close to the literal meaning; it's the opacity of the idioms, of course, that lends them their humour. But the first instance resorts to an English soundalike:
Aaron, Aaron: Άρον άρον

This is a biblical quotation: ἄρον ἄρον, σταύρωσον αὐτόν "take, take, crucify him!" (John 19:5; English translations uniformly leave it as "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!") The expression is quite opaque now, so the GTAGE compiler could get away with namedropping Moses' brother instead. It is opaque, because ἄρον is no longer the imperative for "take!"
  • The present tense of "take, lift" was αἴρω; now it is παίρνω, which is the modern counterpart for ἐπ-αίρω, "to take up, lift up" ( /ep-aírɔː/ > /eˈpero/ > */ˈpero/ > /ˈperno/ : Modern Greek deletes unstressed initial /i, e, o/, and avoids /r, l/ as a present tense ending, adding the less anomalous /n/ after them.)
  • The imperative which was ἄρον is now πάρε. The ancient imperative of ἐπ-αίρω is ἔπ-αρον, a second aorist (corresponding to the Germanic strong verbs). The second aorist died out and was replaced by the first aorist (corresponding to the Germanic weak verbs). Even if the second aorist stem survived, its inflection did not, and at any rate the aorist imperative endings were matched to the present imperative; so ἐπ-άρε. The initial /e/ becomes unstressed and is deleted, by analogy with the present; so /ˈeparon/ > /eˈpare/ > /ˈpare/.
  • In addition, Ancient Greek allows "take!" to be used without an object. In Modern Greek, you can only do this with inanimate objects: you can say πάρε to mean "take it" (actually, "take some"—if you're not naming what is taken, it is assumed to be something appropriately nebulous.) But for a human object, you would have to supply a pronoun: ἄρον ἄρον, σταύρωσον αὐτόν "take, take, crucify him" would now be πάρ' τον, πάρ' τον, σταύρωσέ τον "take him, take him, crucify him".
ἄρον ἄρον doesn't make any sense to Modern Greek speakers, and the repeated imperative sounds odd, like some sort of incantation. (For all I know, ἄρον in antiquity may have been more about seizing the moment than literally taking anyway.) So the phrase was reinterpreted to make sense in context. Churchgoers heard "Aron Aron Crucify Him", and concluded that "aron aron" must mean "hurry up", coming from the crowd pressing to see Christ executed—and so with a connotation of an action being forced. The slang.gr definition is:
Said of something happening very quickly, in a great hurry, a great rush and great stress. Said of something that happens on the go, on the fly, in the fast lane, heart beating like a drum, whoosh, etc.

The phrase is not really slang at all, but quite commonplace mainstream Greek; in fact there was a debate on slang.gr on whether the phrase should be included at all. It's presumably not related, but that interpretation is reminiscent of an earlier repetition, at the end of actual Greek incantations (magical papyri and tablets): ταχὺ ταχύ "quickly, quickly!"

That's the only phrase from the liturgy in the list; there's also a reference to the man reading the liturgy:
And if you are priest you will stand in the queue: Κι αν είσαι και παπάς με την αράδα σου θα πάς

Just about literally rendered, but for the affectation so beloved of GTAGE, of overliterally translating και: και literally means "and", but it can be used not only to join two things, but also in front of just one thing, to mean "also" or "even". So, "and if you are and a priest, with your line you will go": that is, "even if you are a priest, you're still going to stand in the queue." So also defined at slang.gr:
An All time classic popular expression used since time immemorial. αράδα as we know is a queue (σειρά). We also know of the respect that villagers for the most part showed their priests (as well as the teacher and the policeman). Often people would give their place to the priest, so he could be served in a timely manner.

So the expression simply means that one must await the suitable time or moment to act, without exception. Even if one is a priest, for instance, he must still wait his turn—let alone a common mortal.

The explanation presupposes a Greek notion of queues, something that does not quite gel with my experience of Hellenism. Now αράδα is a quite old word for "line", which is now limited to typography and as a synonym for "large number of"; "queue" now is σειρά, which is why slang.gr had to gloss it. But σειρά, which is after all the same word as series, has a clear notion of one party following another; αράδα doesn't have that connotation to me. So I suspect αράδα is used to refer to it being one's turn to be served, without there being an single orderly queue in place. Turns are ordered one after the other, even if the petitioners for those turns are not. Note that it's "*your* line (= turn)", not "your place in the line (= queue)".

In a society where Christianity is the default, Christianity can stand in for what is self-evident: if everyone is supposed to be Christian, then Christianity is supposed to be understood by anyone, putting it in the same category as knowing how to walk or how to jump a queue. So not understanding Christianity was not brought up as a badge of free-thinking, but of questionable mental capacity:
He doesn't understand Christ: Δεν καταλαβαίνει Χριστό
I don't know Christ: Δεν ξέρω Χριστό

Compare the Southern US phrase losing my religion, which actually means "being at the end of one's tether"—although when the Southern US rock band REM launched the phrase into a more secular listening public, that's not how the phrase was understood.

The Greek phrases are used to indicate that someone is refusing to understand something, which should be self-evident. Consequently, it means that someone is pig-headed, since what they are refusing to understand (i.e. go along with) is what *you* are proposing is self-evident.

There is a nuance here: the definite article is not used before Christ. So the phrase cannot mean, literally, "he doesn't understand Christ (e.g. what Christ is saying)" or "he is not acquainted with Christ": without an article, Christ is not being treated as a person. Rather, Christ is being treated like a body of knowlegde—just like δεν καταλαβαίνει βιοχημεία "he doesn't understand biochemistry" or δεν ξέρω κολύμπι "I don't know swimming (= how to swim)". So what is not being understood is not Christ himself, but Christ's body of knowledge: Christianity.

That's my interpretation; slang.gr has a different take:
The religious counterpart to δε μασώ "I won't chew" [I don't give a damn], indicating that the subject is so determined to maintain a particular position that even if Christ himself came down to explain why he should change his mind, he would not understand and would not be persuaded.

But the absent article makes me think I'm right. There is a second meaning, "I don't understand a damn thing" (brought up in the slang.gr thread, appropriately enough, by the user called Jesus). That could be a reinterpretation of the phrase: "I refuse to understand a damn thing" > "I can't understand a damn thing" (hearers take away that it is invective and involves failure to understand, and reapply it); or it could play on the same notion of Christianity as Obvious Truth ("I'm so confused by this, I don't even understand Christianity any more"' cf. the use in English of "I've forgotten my own name.")

If someone obstinate won't even understand Christ, someone hallucinating will misunderstand Christ, again because Christianity is assumed to be self-evident, as common property of the community. Hence, the absurdist vision:
He saw G.I. Christ: Είδε τον Χριστό φαντάρο

Once again, GTAGE requires the Greek to be rendered in English without nuance. By putting φαντάρο "conscript" after the object τον Χριστό "Christ", "conscript" is a small clause, a predicate describing the result of the verb, like "he painted the house red": here "he saw Christ as a conscript".

In another culture, and another time, this would be quite right-thinking, if liberal theology: Christ humbled to the station of Everyman, and the Greek army conscript is as Everyman as the modern culture allows—a stage of humiliation and drudgery every Greek citizen is supposed to go through, if they don't have the right connections to avoid it. The theologians always knew about the humbling of the Incarnation, which is why Byzantine theologians came up with the concept of Kenosis—the emptying out, the voiding of God's will in the Son of God as He becomes Man.

But that's theologians. The common folks' understanding of Christ is what they saw in the icons: Christ as Arch-Priest, as the Almighty, as the Conqueror of Death.

For someone to see with their mind's eye Christ voided, as a lowly Everyman (and as a contemporary Everyman at that), they must be pretty far gone. Accordingly, the phrase is used to indicate that someone has been driven to extremes, that he has been pressed or worked so hard, that he is hallucinating, and seeing manifest absurdities.

More summarily, slang.gr defines the phrase as:
1. Used to stress that we are going through difficult or intense experiences.
2. To be terrified.

Orthodoxy—common folk and theologians—have a special place for the Virgin Mary, as universal mother and divine intercessor. In fact, slang.gr reports an extension of "I saw G.I. Christ": Είδα την Παναγιά περίπολο και το Χριστό φαντάρο, "I saw Holy Mary on patrol and Christ as a conscript." So if something is especially rare, it gets calledː
Holy Mary's eyes: Της Παναγιάς τα μάτια

Eyes are already used to refer to something dear, something that cannot be replaced—with accompanying derision for blindness in proverbial wisdom. So μάτια μου "my eyes" remains a term of endearment. If you're going to pile on preciousness and scarcity, the object of affection can't just be irreplacable eyes, but the irreplacable eyes of someone irreplacable: your mother. And to go even further, not just your mother, but the universal mother. But the expression refers not to something dear but to something scarce. Per slang.gr, with suitably irreverent example, and a definition which looks different but ends up meaning the same:
Absolutely everything, the lot:
Woah, she ate absolutely everything, that fart-eater. She didn't even leave Holy Mary's Eyes out!

The next reference to folk religion has been rendered overliterally once more, although the idiom is opaque enough that it's hard to realise:
He cannot crucify girlfriend: Δεν μπορεί να σταυρώσει γκόμενα|o

girlfriend/boyfriend actually (γκόμενα ~ γκόμενo), and the phrase does not refer to executing one's partner on a tree. The phrase actually means there is no partner to execute: "he can't possibly get a girlfriend/boyfriend". The expression can be used with anyone or anything impossible for someone to get hold of: δεν μπορεί να σταυρώσει φράγκο "he can't crucify a franc = he can't get (= earn) a single drachma". The nuance is that this is because of the person's inability or incompetence, not because it is impossible for a person of reasonable means to do; so you wouldn't say δεν μπορεί να σταυρώσει κότερο "he can't crucify a yacht", unless you wanted to imply that surely anyone who's anyone can surely afford a little yacht, dahlink.

The catch with this idiom is that σταυρώνω does not only mean "crucify". In traditional Greek society, which did not use Roman methods of execution, the only entity referred to as crucified was Christ, and those references were limited to Easter. The more commonly used sense of σταυρώνω is "to make the sign of the cross over" something or someone. For people, this was done as a blessing, typically to ward off evil spirits. For objects, this was done likewise, and evil spirits would be warded off a costly acquisition.

The implication here is a nice little vignette: the pauper, after much effort, finally gets a single drachma, and makes the sign of the cross over it to keep it put. The dateless is yearning to get a girlfriend; if he ever does (which he won't), he will be desperately making the sign of the cross over her, to make sure she doesn't get away from him through the offices of some evil spirit (or less nerve-wracked lover).

slang.gr does not have a distinct entry for crucifying girlfriends, but deals with the colloquial use of the verb overall:
To acquire, to happen upon, to make one's own, to fuck [in the slang sense of "to be a success"]. This admittedly pas tellment slangue term is usually expressed in the negative. Possibly from the English "he cannot crucify a girlfriend". [Yes, slang.gr in-joke referring back to GTAGE.]

The other examples given of something not gained, despite great effort and desperation, are a football victory, and a customer:
  • The team cannot manage to play soccer, it cannot "crucify" a victory (δεν μπορεί να σταυρώσει νίκη), and of course it is not even dynamic enough to get bad referreeing.
  • Doubling up the range of a brand, with two models close to each other, often shows bad strategy from the car manufacturer. A classic example is the VW Jetta; as long as the Passat is alongside it, it cannot "crucify" a customer (δε μπορεί να σταυρώσει πελάτη).

The discussants are at something at a loss of where the expression comes from. Xalikoutis suggests two possibilities. The first is crossing a customer off a list, with some relief. The second, which is along the lines I have proposed, is housewives making the sign of the cross over a painstakingly prepared dish, before putting it in the oven. Others bring up examples of passengers making the sign of the cross over the airplane crew, and a lawyer making the sign over the trial documents.

"Crucifying" a girlfriend would be a red-letter day indeed for our hapless Lothario, at any rate. After all,
It's not every day St. John's: Δεν είναι κάθε μέρα τ’ Αη-Γιαννιού

GTAGE overliteral word order of course: "Not every day is St John's", with "every day" emphasised by moving it after "is not". St John's is an important feast day in Orthodoxy as it is in Catholicism; the importance of the day for Catholics has made it the Quebec National Day (and makes for some awkwardness, now that the day is being promoted as secular, and not exclusive to the Francophones).

The Catholic feast for St John the Baptist is the commemoration of his birth, on June 24, making it the midsummer festival. The major Orthodox feast day for St John the Baptist is on January 7, making it the capstone to the Twelve Days of Christmas.

To conclude, a rendering which combines the Byzantine, the Information Age, and Modern Greek aggro, describing the kind of blasphemy that this posting has skirted.
I downloaded vigil candles: Κατέβασα καντήλια

Κατεβάζω can be used to mean "to download", and doing so is incongruous enough to make it a natural choice for GTAGE. Its more general meaning, of course, is simply "to take down". The expression means "to blaspheme", and it is modelled after κατέβασα άγιους, "I brought down saints". It would be tempting to assume in this expression some sort of rueful self-awareness, that by blaspheming in naming saints, one is bringing the saints down to their base level.

But that kind of self-awareness is fairly counterproductive, and instead I think the expression is based on the use of Χ τον ανέβασα, Ψ τον κατέβασα "I brought him up X, I brought him down Y", meaning to go through a list of descriptions for someone—the descriptions typically derogatory. (There is a variant "I brought him up X, I brought him down X", meaning that the derogatory description X is the only description fit for something.) The first few examples I've googled:
  • Νερόπλυμα τον ανεβάζω, νερόπλυμα τον κατεβάζω και ποτέ δεν τον πλησιάζω (Of filter coffee) I bring it up "dishwater", I bring it down "dishwater", and I won't go near it.
  • Το Στάθη γιατί τον ανεβάζω κωλόγρια και τον κατεβάζω πορνόγερο. Το χειρότερο είναι ότι είναι και τα δύο Why do I bring Stathis up "old hag" and bring him down "old goat"? What's worst is that he's both.
  • ολοι σιγουρα εχετε διαβασει ποστ μου οπου βριζω τον τζεικ και σκυλο τον ανεβαζω κουταβι τον κατεβαζω
    αλλα νομιζω οτι τωρα τον εχω συμπαθησει σαν χαρακτηρα You must all have read posts by me where I swear about Jake (of Twilight), and I bring him up "dog" and bring him down "pup". But now I think I like him as a character.
  • Ποιος έγραψε πουθενά ότι ο Παπαχελάς είναι “πράκτορας της CIA”; Εγώ πάντως όχι. Αν μη τι άλλο Μπιλντερμπέργκερ τον ανεβάζω Μπιλντερμπέργκερ τον κατεβάζω And who wrote that Papakhelas is a CIA agent? Not me. In fact, I bring him up a member of the Bilderberg Group, I bring him down a member of the Bilderberg Group.
  • κάθετα όχι. Δεν μ'αρέσει. Ντικ τον ανεβάζω, ντικ τον κατεβάζω. Δεν ξέρω γιατί, μάλλον εμπάθεια (Response to someone welcoming Dirk Nowitzki to Olympiakos Basketball Team) Absolutely not. I don't like him. I bring him up "Dick", I bring him down "Dick". I don't know why, probably my hostility.
  • Έτσι και πάρει την ΑΕΚ, έχει να γίνει πολλή πλάκα με τη φάτσα του. Ερμπακάν θα τον ανεβάζω, Θείο θα τον κατεβάζω (Of Haralambos Kozonis, prospective owner of AEK Football Club) If he takes over AEK, there'll be a lot of fun to have about his face. I'll bring him up "Erbakan" [because of his similarity to the Turkish politician], I'll bring him down "Uncle".
  • Και εγώ θα τα πάρω με το Λεωνίδα, μαλάκα θα τον ανεβάζω, καριόλη θα τον κατεβάζω, θα του ρίξω τα καντήλια του I'll get in a rage with Leonidas, I'll bring him up "wanker", I'll bring him down "whore", I'll throw him down his candles. [Variant of the phrase under discussion here.]

The image here, *I* think, is of someone going up and down a catalogue of descriptions; by using them to describe someone, you are taking them up and down the catalogue. Once you have gone up and down a catalogue of saints, you can shorten it to just going down the catalogue—which would emphasise, if not the earthiness of the listing, certainly its definitiveness and condemnation (by the straightforward spatial metaphor, DOWN = bad, condemnation, anger).

If the saints are being brought down, it is a euphemistic and absurdist metonomy to switch from saints the cult objects associated most with saints: the candles lit in their name in church. Taking down candles is an oblique of saying you're taking down the saints that the candles are lit to honour, which in turn means to go through a derogatory cataogue of saints.

One last time, the slang.gr definition, and an explanation in comments that I don't agree with (the candles don't go down of their own accord in the expression). But it's all opinion for these derivations anyway:
Swearing, usually swearing about holy matters, blasphemy.
"Panayotis, stop pinching grandpa, because if he wakes up he's going to take down a candle on you, and he'll be entirely within his rights to."
  • Meaning, our curse will be so blasphemous, that the very candles of church won't be able to stand it and will come down.

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