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The curious case of the highfalutin Greek phallus

December 30, 2011


We are reliably informed that Nicos, our Greek teacher is also an accomplished musician and poet.

At our first lesson, he asked us if we would read a selection of his poems that a friend had translated into English, in order to check that they made sense and to correct any spelling and grammatical errors.

Now anyone who knows me of old, will be aware of my reputation as something of an “intellectual thug” when it comes to matters poetic, so Nicos’ request was somewhat of a challenge! Nevertheless, I stuck to the task and read through what seemed like a vast quantity of his work, the meaning of which was largely quite beyond me, highlighting issues which I felt he needed to address.

One matter which caused us both Sheila and I some amusement but which we felt we could not raise with him involved the use of the adjective ‘highfalutin’ in the context of a phallus! How this phrase appeared in the original Greek and just which online dictionary came up with the choice of highfalutin, was therefore to remain a mystery – or so I thought.

Then, at our Greek lesson earlier this week, Nicos spent over an hour dealing with the definite article, which in Greek follows both the gender and case of the noun, which it accompanies. At the end of the lesson, we were encouraged to think up examples and rather mischieviously, the highfalutin phallus came to mind!

Using schoolboy logic, I assumed that a phallus is masculine in gender, which means in turn that the definite article in the nominative case is ‘o’ in Greek, ‘tou’ (pronounced like the English word two) in the genitive and ‘ton’ in the accusative.

It was at this point that the penny finally dropped and I began to appreciate that these poetic johnnies are really rather clever, for the humble English Willy in its Greek nominative case suddenly morphs into a salutation – ‘Oh highfalutin phallus’, in the genitive it doubles in number (if not size) and in the accusative, there are literally tons of them!

It certainly adds a whole new dimension to the meaning of ‘highfalutin’ and perhaps explains why the woman in the poem had a smile on her face! Clever and a curious case indeed. Needless to say, I have decided not to share my conclusions with Nicos!

Priapus, fertility god, weighing his phallus & fruit | Roman fresco Pompeii

Priapos (not John)


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  1. Mairi Marlborough permalink

    Your blog is turning into a real classical education!

  2. Very interesting information!Perfect just what I was looking for!

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