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Home Is Where the Etymology Is

10/28/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2013

Last month, I picked up a book in a local store, read the epigraph, and got actual goosebumps up and down my arms. And it wasn't because of the store's overdone air conditioning. What gave me chills was a single Ancient Greek word in the epigraph to Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat -- a history of the U.S. men's crew team that competed at the 1936 Olympics. The word was νοστιμον (nostimon) and it comes from a passage in Homer's Odyssey in which Odysseus tells us: "But I desire and I long every day to go home and to look upon the day of my return." The day of my return. Or, in Greek, νοστιμον ημαρ (nostimon emar). Every Greek knows this phrase and understands its rich meaning, for the notion of the day of return home captures the essence of what it is to be Greek.

Since Odysseus left Troy and took nine years to get home, Greeks have been leaving their homes, villages, cities, and traveling abroad -- often to escape hardship in their native land, but also to pursue an idea, to achieve an ambition. But always, the Greeks of the diaspora have looked homeward, and quite often, they have returned to their home country. Their time abroad turns into a temporary sojourn, a departure almost necessary for their true belonging to Greece. Greeks certainly have been immigrants to the United States and Australia (to name just two of the major destinations) in large numbers, but in their hearts, they are almost always emigrants. Diaspora, after all, is a Greek word.

So back to that one word nostimon. I've long known that the word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos. Nostalgia is, literally, a sickness -- in other words, the painful longing for an absent home. But what gave me goosebumps as I read Brown's Homeric epigraph was the realization that the Ancient Greek nostos also serves as the root for the Modern Greek word for delicious or handsome: nostimo. Imagine that. Imagine a language, a culture, that derives its notion of what is pleasing from the notion of homecoming.

When I returned from the bookstore, I began scouring my Greek dictionaries, my Ancient Greek dictionaries, the brains of my Greek friends and family, to see if what I suspected was correct. And indeed it is. Today, when we use nostimo to praise a piece of spanakopita or a handsome young man, we are assigning value on the basis of the ability to get home. Of course that's not what we're really saying these days, but the idea is embedded in the language. That which is pleasing is that which can succeed in the return home.

Maybe things like this don't count if they are part of the etymology of a word and not part of its contemporary denotation. But I like to think that the roots of a word still reach up to its present-day meaning, whether we are entirely conscious of them or not. I like to think that the sound of the ancient word echoes into its contemporary usage. I always knew that the longing for an absent home was an essential aspect of being Greek. Now I know it's built in to how Greeks express pleasure.

Should this matter to anyone who isn't Greek? I think so. Because surely similar things occur in other languages. Because the building blocks of a language reveal the sentiments and concepts at the heart of any culture.

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