If you’ve read my earlier blog entry It’s All Greek to Me, Part 1, you’ll see that a handful of figures of speech still in use refer to Ancient Greek culture, history, arts, writings and mythology.
But what I was lamenting in Part 1 was that fewer and fewer Americans know the backstory of these idioms. And without that knowledge, eventually these expressions, rich in culture and history, will fade away.
Which is too bad, because not only will we lose some really fascinating figures of speech, it also means that before that happens a lot of us will have already lost a valuable part of our cultural heritage.
Rich as Croesus
“Rich as Croesus” is a figure of speech that is still used today, mostly by journalists when they are describing an extremely wealthy person.
I guess the ex-mayor of my hometown, NYC, qualifies for that expression. Michael Bloomberg’s net worth clocks in at an astounding 31 billion dollars, give or take a few pennies, as of September, 2013, according to Forbes. But he is small potatoes compared to Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, who tops the mayor at 72 billion dollars.
Croesus the King
Croesus 595 BC – 547?BC (pronounced kree-sis) was a real person and no doubt very rich for his time. According to Wikipedia, Croesus “was the king of Lydia from 560 to 547BC until his defeat by the Persians.”
But what really made “Croesus” synonymous with “extremely rich” has a lot to due with a metallurgical breakthrough that occurred under the king’s reign. It was at this time that Lydia’s gold and silversmiths perfected the ability to separate the alloyed gold and silver that naturally occurred together in nuggets.
The process enabled Croesus’ treasury to mint coins made of nearly pure gold or silver. The dependable value of the coinage was really the beginning of modern currency – people throughout the region had faith in the coins’ worth, and this made the kingdom of Lydia a wealthy commercial center.
In this way “Croesus” became a synonym for “an exceedingly wealthy person” throughout the Ancient World, and his name was used in this way as early as 1390 in John Gower’s Middle English 33,000-line poetic masterpiece Confessio amantis. (Though I’ve got to admit I had never heard of this bit of literature until I did the research for this entry.)
“Eureka” is an interjection used to express feelings of pride, triumph and joy all at the same time upon arriving at an understanding. This exclamation is usually reserved for matters of some difficulty or importance.
For example, one might utter “Eureka!” if suddenly, in a flash of insight, you figured out the secret of time-travel, the cure for the common cold, or even the solution for “24 across” in The New York Times Sunday crossword (the answer is “xanthomatosis.”)
But you probably wouldn’t use the expression to announce something as mundane as finding that other half of a pair of argyle socks that had gone missing for two months.
To get to the origin of “Eureka” you have to set the Way Back Machine (see caption above) to the Ancient Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, around the second century B.C. There you would find Archimedes – mathematician, scholar, scientist, scholar, and inventor.
It so happened that one day the King of Syracuse came to Archimedes with a problem. The king had given his crown maker a mass of pure gold, from which the goldsmith would create a ceremonial crown. The king received the finished crown, and it weighed the same as the raw gold, but the king suspected the craftsman had shaved some of the gold for himself and substituted the same weight of the purloined gold with silver.
Because the cheaper silver was less dense than gold, the crown would have a greater volume than the pure gold the king had provided. But how do you determine the volume of the crown without melting it down into a measurable shape?
Archimedes pondered this while stepping into a small bath, which was filled to the brim with water. The water overflowed. “Eureka” he exclaimed to himself, which was the Ancient Greek word for “I have found it!”
Archimedes realized in a flash that he could put the crown in a bowl of water filled to the top and then measure the amount of water that overflowed, and then do the for same for a lump of pure gold that weighted the same as the crown. If the overflow for both objects matched, it meant both had the same mass and the goldsmith was not a crook.
Is that clear? Any questions? Is there a hydraulic engineer in the house? Well, I tried.
Anyway, here’s the fun part. Archimedes was so excited by his solution that he ran out of the bathhouse to his home, starkers, having forgotten to put on any clothes, all the while yelling “Eureka!, Eureka!”
You can imagine who was topic numero uno at the agora the next day.
The Eureka Effect
Psychologists studying how the human brain comes up with sudden insights to solve problems have called this process The Eureka Effect after Archimedes’ experience.
If you want to see what the Eureka Effect looks like in a person, just envision actor Christopher Lloyd as “Doc” Emmett L. Brown in Back to the Future (1985.)