Ass and Name
Zola and Zoilus
A few Neos
What's in a Nem?
Pleo III-Two More Pleons
Achron.. and Acroam..
Per IV--Perpotation et al.
Per and Pre--Prevenient
Perpense and Perpend
Epi I--Epiplexis, et al.
The Doric Column
Epi III--Episemon et al.
What's in a "Nem"?
As I was cruising the "Neo" neighborhood, I could not help but notice also the bright lights and alluring sights of the nearby "Nem" residents. I wanted to let you know what I found when I stopped in there for the afternoon.
Almost everyone who has studied Greek mythology recalls that in one of his early labors Hercules killed the fearsome Nemean lion, skinned it, and then wore its pelt around his shoulders to memorialize this exploit. But there is no unanimity on how to spell the name of the town, near Argos, that stands behind the adjective "Nemean." Three Greek renderings of the word are transliterated into the Latin as "Nemeus," "Nemaeus" and "Nemeaeus." Seeing these variant spellings of the town name brought back painful memories of graduate school, where I had a professor who always made us put in extra "a's" in words, such as "mediaeval" or "palaeography." I always thought it was an expression of pompaosity to write like this, though now I see it as just a variant that was attested by 19th century classicists whom they were trying to imitate. As for me and my house, we will stick with Nemean...and medieval...and paleography.
Hesiod, in his Theogony, tells stories of the births of Gods and lesser creatures. Nereus, the old man of the sea, had 50 daughters, the sea-nymphs. Nemertes was the last one listed, coming after Menippe, Neso, Eupompe, Themisto and Pronoe. But we would be hard pressed to find a single English word that derives from any of these other five nymphs born directly before Nemertes. Which makes interesting the fact that four words coming from Nemertes' name are attested in the OED (nemertean, nemertian, nemertid, nemertine), even though they all mean the same thing. The words refer to a "class of flat-worms (chiefly marine) ....characterized by an elongated, very contractile body, and often brilliantly colored." The Greek word "nema" means "thread" and the series of words we have that combine with nema or nemato are all "worm-related" words. So for example, if you just watched one of those movies popular within small groups of the counterculture, in which women step on worms and kill them, you would have been witnessing nematicide.
[Ah, but look. The OED has the word nematicide, meaning "worm-killing," but the Webster's Third New International Dictionary from 1993 has nematocide or nematicide to indicate a substance prepared with the goal of killing worms. So, we have a problem not just in the spelling, but in the meaning. Is nematicide/nematocide the killing of worms, like patricide is the killing of the father and infanticide is the killing of infants or is it a substance which kills, like a pesticide? I don't know how to decide, though I think I will use the word in whichever way I want. Yikes, I just found that the Webster's has nemacide as an equivalent to nematocide. The stark reality of English usage almost forces us to make up words as we go along, doens't it?]
But, the fact that the late-born sea bird/nymph Nemertes bequeathes her name to several English words today relating to worms does tend to confute the old adage that it is the early bird that gets the worm.
While we are on the Greeks, we might as well look at Nemesis, the goddess of Retribution, "who brings down all immoderate good fortune...and is the punisher of extraordinary crimes." Nemesis serves as the great reminder that we all, in fact, are humans and that nature and the gods will have the last word in our lives. The existence of Nemesis, then, ought to induce humility and a sense of what Herodotus would call the "chanciness of life." We can also use the word in English as a substantive and can refer to anyone who avenges or punishes as a "nemesis."
I suppose it was the vividness of Nemesis' role in Greek mythology and drama that induced the psychologist Rosenzweig in the late 1930s to add an "m" to the word, thus creating another ism (as if the world needed another one). What does "nemesism" mean? "The psycho-analyst might appropriately call the turning of aggressing upon the individual's own self 'nemesism.'....Nemesism could then be thought of as the counterpart of narcism." Ah, so the word was invented as a kind of counterpart to narcism or, more popularly, narcissism. In narcism we fall in love with ourselves; in nemesism we want to destroy or hurt ourselves. That Rosenzweig's suggestion bore some fruit is confirmed by its usage in the 1940s and 1960s in psychological texts, though a Google search in 2004 yielded no appearances of the word in this sense on the Internet.
Perhaps justice, whether it is retributive justice or not, has thus been served. Though the connection of "narcissicm" with "self-love" is clear, direct and vivid, with the sad story of Echo and Narcissus informing the term, the connection of nemesis with self-destruction isn't really that strong. Sometimes, indeed, the person who suffers brings it on himself, but it is the god who is ultimately responsible for his fall. And, then, again, Nemesis doesn't really have a story or personality that gives her a repulsiveness or even vividness.
So, let's commend Rosenzweig, by all means, for his bold attempt to invent a term, but realize that there is quite a difference between inventing a term, or even writing an essay, and having that term (or essay) catch on.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long