RIP: Tassos Karanastassis

Tassos A. Karanastassis (Τάσος Καραναστάσης), lecturer at the University of Thessalonica seconded to the Centre for Byzantine Studies, passed away last week, entirely too young.

He finished up at the Centre for Byzantine Studies; but for much of his career, from 1980 to 2003, Tassos worked at the Dictionary of Mediaeval Greek Vernacular Literature. The dictionary was established by the now 103–year-old Emmanuel Kriaras in 1968; there is a good reason why the dictionary bears his name, and Kriaras continued to have the final word over all work up to 1997. But in his time there, Karanastassis had the day-to-day charge of the dictionary: he was its soul and its motor and its thrall.

His involvement with the dictionary ceased in 2003, earlier than he would have preferred; Karanastassis went back to his dissertation (which we hope to see published soon), and his research. The dictionary has gone on without him, and I wish it well; but it will not soon see someone with that degree of immersion, dedication, and easy familiarity with half a millenium's worth of words. A familiarity, I am told, that translated into 4,000 marginal notes to Trapp's overlapping Lexikon der byzantinischen Gräzität. I hope they too will eventually see the light of day.

I profited from his easy familiarity while George Baloglou and I were translating the Entertaining Tale of Quadrupeds: more than once during our inquiries he'd pause, look up, mutter "that can't be right", walk to the shelf, and fish out a novel sense of στασίδι from a six-hundred year old legal deed. ("Fishing spot", not "pew"—teaching me for the first time that Early Modern Greek was not as like to the language I speak as I'd assumed.) He had volumes of facts and contexts and connections filed away in his head, in a heterogeneous throng like the jars of pencil stubs and pottery shards he kept by his desk. And he always delighted to gather more: my unconscious lapses into Cretan phonology (δεκαρά), as much as mediaeval words for saucers (σαρσαρόλι).

That delight is what made him the dictionary's soul and its motor, as its thrall. He had objected to me saying as much about him on my web site, and he deferred to his forebear. (He was mortified when I guffawed at a paper I was reading on the premises in '96: "Shut up, the Professor is inside!") But Karanastassis has a large share of the responsibility for Early Modern Greek now having a dictionary. And his contribution has not been adequately acknowledged. His name does appear on the cover of the 2001 abridgment at least; but the whole dictionary is his, as much as it is anyone's. And that deserves to be said more.

George knew him longer than I did, and has put up his own reminiscences of him, more detailed than you'll find here. I'm glad to know Tassos stopped by this blog from time to time, even as his illness started to take its toll. I smile to read he had smirked to George about the same obscene citation from 1383 that I posted about last month. But by last month, Tassos was no longer able to stop by and smirk once more.

Others are better qualified than I to praise his literary scholarship—the encyclopaedic knowledge that gave him license to draw the long bow lines, and connect the unsurmised. The dozens of young scholars that served time at the dictionary know better than I how sound a mentor he was. The people of Kallikrateia, where his final resting place is, had more of a sense than I of what he was like outside the office and away from the pencil stubs.

For my part, I pause at an image, and at a put-down. Someone once groused at me, "Karanastassis thinks he's labouring sub specie aeternitatis." That wasn't intended as a compliment. But while I was gratified by Tassos' excitement when he solved a problem, or his good humour as he told a story entirely too long, the image that abides with me is Tassos labouring "under the aspect of eternity": pensive with his melancholy mustache and shock of grey hair, his blue eyes staring into the distance, sorting through words and facts and contexts, bringing them into deliberate, and unrushed, order.

He is eternity's now. Ελαφρύ το χώμα που τον σκεπάζει. Light be the earth that covers him.

Nick Nicholas and Tassos Karanastassis, 1996

NB: Tassos Karanastassis is not to be confused with his namesake Anastasios Karanastassis, another Greek lexicographer, who wrote the Academy of Athens' Dictionary of the Greek Dialects of Southern Italy.


  1. Eh? "Drawing the long bow" is telling tall tales (which you know are such); is that what you meant?

  2. Yeah, that's not quite what I meant, and I thought I'd contextualised it to avoid that inference, but it isn't defeasible, is it. Draw the long lines, then.

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  4. Thanks Nick, you say things many of us wanted to say but were overwhelmed from the news and didn't manage to...

  5. Thank you Nick, for your heartfelt tribute to my brother. It pains me too to think of the loss of his scholar identity, together with the varied talents he was endowed with; his ease with Math in high school, his sketching ability, the meticulousness with which he and his brother built model airplanes, his skill in photography -- adolescent or adult talents that fell by the wayside as he got more and more immersed in his academic endeavors. But all that doesn’t compare to the grief I feel for the loss of his goodness, expressed equally to those around him, from the professor you mentioned, to the family of gypsies overflowing to the yard of their little house in his neighborhood, or a dog he’d run into during one of his walks. I hurt for the loss of his child-like innocence that left him vulnerable at times and because of that it saddened and angered me. Struggling to come to grips with his harsh path to death, I’m trying to console myself with the hope that he is indeed at a “place” far better suited for his gentle kind.


  6. Nick, let me add my thanks for your truthful and balanced tribute. Tassos was more than a mentor, colleague and friend; he was like an older brother to me and I am so devastated that I really don't know what to write or say. My deepest condolences to his sister Christina who posted the previous note. I find some comfort in the thought that his resting place now is in Kallikrateia, in the same grounds that he loved grubbing and digging for antiquities, a place that also has a wonderful view to his "swimming heaven", as George has put it...

  7. "tο κείμενο, Γιώργο, το κείμενο"

    "[focus on] the text, George, [focus on] the text"

    "απλά είναι τα πράγματα"

    "the situation is clear"

  8. Αγαπητοί Nick και Γιώργο,

    Σας ευχαριστούμε θερμά. Δίνετε τη δυνατότητα σε πολλούς να γνωρίσουν τον Τάσο μας, τον ολοκληρωμένο αυτό άνθρωπο και επιστήμονα. Αυτόν που αγάπησε μικρά και θαυμαστά πράγματα, αυτόν που με την πορεία της ζωής του μας έμαθε να προσπαθούμε να κατακτήσουμε το τέλειο. Με την αγάπη, τη γνώση, την υπομονή.

    Χρυσούλα, Αποστόλης, Κατερίνα, Γιώργος

  9. Obituary in the Serres newspaper Ελεύθερο Βήμα. (h/t to Maria at Sarantakos'.)