Friday, April 24, 2015

One Word: Vocab in Context Mystery

Earlier this week, I was asked on Voxer by California colleague Beth Oing if I knew what "oam" means in Book IV of Samuel Butler's translation of The Odyssey.   The understanding of the meaning of this one three letter word has sparked a journey of discovery spanning across various states and social media.

Here is the passage in question, as captured from The Internet Classics Archive:

In context, Helen is stating that during this time in the Trojan War she has begun to yearn or long for home.  But why didn't Butler just use the words "yearn" or "long"? There has to be a particular reason for that particular word. If readers understand "oam", will we see something more into Helen's character and mindset during this period?

Refiling through my Latin dictionary, I didn't recognize "oam" and assumed,  since I'm not versed in Greek, that "oam" must be some sort of play on words and Butler was using a Greek word as a pun. But why would there be a Greek word mixed in with the Latin names of Ulysses and Menelaus?  That didn't make sense either.

Carrying the conversation over to Twitter, I consulted 2014 Indiana State Teacher of the Year and Latin teacher Steve Perkins....

Thinking about diction and author's purpose, the literal English translation of the Greek as "her heart has turned to go toward home." By stating that Helen's heart had "turned" toward home, it implies that at one point she had turned away from home.  So the mystery of the Rape of Helen -- whether she went willingly with Paris or was forcibly kidnapped-- seems to have an answer in Homer: Helen wanted to go with Paris!  Could the word "oam" in Butler's translation signify this as well?  But then why didn't Butler use the literal translation? I love reading The Odyssey with my students for so many reasons, but being able to explore word choice in the various translations (Lattimore is still my favorite) and discuss how individual words can shape the meaning has taught my students that words do matter!

Still not satisfied, Steve then broached the topic with contacts via email and  his Latin educators group on Facebook....

Did you catch that??? Steve's friend at Cambridge looked at THE Butler manuscripts. Talk about consulting the source!  This is like six degrees of separation-- with a few tweets, emails, and posts we were able to find a scholar with access to an original document to guide our understanding.  What else can we research?! 

This has be such an engaging and fun use of modern social media to solve an ancient mystery. I echo Mr. Steve Perkins' sentiments!

I contacted the Classics professor at my local university, but we still haven't come upon an answer for oam.

The mystery continues!  

1 comment:

  1. Kate, I shared this with my Latin II, III, and IV/V classes today. We talked about the parallel with scribal errors as scribes copied ancient texts, an issue our upper level classes have discussed in the past. Most importantly I wanted my students to see the ease of communicating with serious scholars around the country/world and the readiness of most to answer questions and join in the conversation. I told them that, while cat videos can be funny, this is really what the Internet is for. I can't thank you enough for bringing me in on this. I love this kind of thing!

    Who published the Butler-oam edition you are reading? The question now is to see when and where the "oam" came into the publishing history of the Butler translation, since it had been clearly established that this was not in his manuscript, nor was it in the earliest editions of 1900, 1922, and 1926.

    I also think it is important for our students to see their teachers engaged in meaningful research and study of the subjects they teach. Great stuff!