Welcome to History’s the Word
Learning the origin of a word is often enlightening. Doing so may reveal something unexpected; for example, every instance of the word “check” comes from the Persian word for “king” (more on that in a later post). It may reveal something humorous: the word “feisty” comes from the Middle English word fist, which means “fart.”Or it may reveal something about the culture from which the term derives. It’s this last type that we’ll be exploring today through the words “spartan” and “laconic.”
Unsurprisingly, both these terms hearken back to ancient Greece–more specifically, to Sparta. When asked about Spartans, those who saw the 2007 film 300 will probably describe Spartans as Speedo-clad warriors who bravely fought off the Persians. And while 300 took very extensive artistic liberties, it did get one thing 100 percent correct: the Spartans lived to fight. In fact, pretty much all of Spartan society was structured around being as loyal, resourceful, and fearless as possible.
While neither “spartan” nor “laconic” have anything to do with with fighting itself, exploring the origins of these words reveals quite a bit about the conditions which bred a society of warriors. Let’s begin with “spartan,” which describes one who is indifferent to comfort or luxury. Actually, this definition understates Spartan severity; even at the peak of the city-state’s influence and power (around 400 BCE), the life of a Spartan was unimaginably rough. In Sparta, only the strong survived. Newborns were bathed in wine to gauge their toughness. (Apparently not drowning in wine was a good litmus test for fortitude.) Any infant deemed weak or deformed was tossed into a chasm. If a male child survive these initial trials, at age seven he would begin decades of austere military training and would remain in the active reserve until age 60. The child’s military training doubled as his classical education, and unique punishments were reserved for students whose responses were not sufficiently laconic (witty and succinct).
Indeed, this pity manner of speaking is so closely associated with Spartans that it, like the term “spartan,” is actually named after them. In antiquity, “Sparta” referred to the city-state’s main settlement–the region as a whole was often called ”Laconia” and its inhabitants “Lacedaemonians.” Thus, to speak “laconically” is to speak like a Spartan. And as if to ensure their historical legacy as the ultimate action-movie heroes, many recorded laconic phrases make great one-liners. For instance, during Macedonian King Philip II’s conquest of Greece, he sent a message to Sparta that read:
“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army onto your land, I
will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
The Spartan leaders responded with a single word: “If.” Neither Philip II nor his son, Alexander the Great, ever attempted to take the city. Another laconic phrase derives from the Battle of Thermopylae, where a Spartan warrior was told that the Persian army was so large that its arrows would block out the sun. To this, the Spartan replied, “So much the better, we’ll fight in the shade.” Over 2,000 years later, this very line was used in the film 300, proving definitively that the Spartans did, in fact, produce great movie one-liners.
Ultimately, I find these words fascinating because they allow us to view an oft-studied and depicted culture through different lenses. The casual observer might claim that Spartans were great warriors simply because they were stronger, faster, and trained harder than their opponents. And while all that may be true, it ignores the fact that Spartan society centered on war. Their discipline in battle was an extension of the spartan lives they led at home and the lean, laconic way they composed their speech.
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