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Monday, July 3, 2017

M3 What's in A Name?

            One of the more famous parts of the story between Odysseus and Polyphemus is that of the name Odysseus gives the cyclops. This is famously translated as “No man, No one, or Nobody. These are all correct, and the cleverness of this answer comes through, but also paints Polyphemus as a bit a moron. Certainly, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the translation doesn’t do anyone any justice.

            Like everything, it’s more complicated. The Greek word for this pseudonym is Οὖτις, which, depending on the syntax and usage in the sentence, has two different pronunciations: Οὖτις or μή τίς. For our purposes just think of the pronunciations as outis and metis, respectively.
            This may sound weird, but it’s similar to how the English word lead either means a metal that Superman can’t see through, or to be in command (or a leash or the major part in a play or film, or . . . you get the idea). The context of the rest of the sentence tells us what’s going on and how it should be said and read (another word with different pronunciations).
The second pronunciation, that of metis, just happens to coincide with another word, Μῆτις, which happens to also be the name of Athena’s mother, the goddess of thought. In common meaning, the word is translated to mean “someone of cunning” or “clever man.” This is entirely appropriate to Odysseus since he is referred to in both The Iliad and The Odyssey as “clever Odysseus,” “cunning Odysseus,” and “the man of many turns/resources/devices.”
            When Odysseus gives his name as Outis, he is actually being exceptionally clever and honest at the same time. He is the clever man. It is simultaneously a boast and protection. He’s showing off. It’s not so much that Polyphemus is an idiot as that Odysseus is miles above in terms of cleverness.
            For a bit more about the whole outis and metis thing, with the original Greek text, go here:

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