My wife gave me The Book of Firsts by Peter D'Epiro for my birthday last month. It's a collection of 150 short essays, with seven or eight for each of the first 20 centuries A.D., on firsts such as "Which emperor first criminalized Christianity in the Roman Empire?" and "What was the first photograph?" Good stuff. In the section on the second century, D'Epiro asks, "Who was the first comparative biographer?" I'm writing about this one not because of the answer (Plutarch), but because there are several interesting etymologies in this essay about Plutarch's book, Lives:
- On the founders of Rome: "In the life of Romulus, we find all the familiar tales, such as how he and his twin, Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf, though Plutarch offers the alternative interpretation that the boys' adoptive mother was the real lupa, since the word can mean both 'she-wolf' and 'whore' in Latin."
- On the Spartans: Plutarch "also gives examples of their laconic wit (the word laconic comes from the district of Laconia, of which Sparta was the capital), as when a Spartan refused to go hear a man who imitated a nightingale's voice with the explanation, 'I've heard the nightingale itself.'"
- On Solon, the Athenian lawgiver and reformer: "When mentioning that Solon forbade the export of any produce except olive oil, Plutarch explains how informers became known as sycophants (literally "fig revealers"), since they curried favor with the authorities by squealing on Athenians who traded in figs."