If only the voters knew Greek

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Many commentators have observed that John McCain is campaigning as if it were the Democrats, not the Republicans, who had been in office for the last eight years, hoping that voters will forget about George Bush and view the Republicans as the party of reform. If only more people had a classical education, McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate would have provided yet another point for the Democrats: the Ancient Greek word whose transliteration is the same as her family name, πάλιν, means "again" or "back".

[Update: Some people seem to think that I mean this seriously and am bringing it up as a reason to vote against McCain and Palin. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It's a joke. See my response to comments taking it seriously in the comments below.]


  1. Michael said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 6:37 am

    Given the (fortunately mostly lapsed) row over Barack Obama's middle name, would Democrats really want to bring up the meaning of names to attack the Republican ticket? It seems as if that could easily cost more than it gains for Obama and Biden.

  2. Laura said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 6:40 am

    Sadly, if people weren't convinced the Democrats were "elitist" before now, making points abut Ancient Greek transliterations would probably do the job. ;-)

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 7:14 am

    Across the world's 6000-odd languages, no doubt all the current candidates' names mean a variety of positive and negative things, especially once the scholarly standards of Tingo and similar works take over. Do we really want to start the process of finding out what the complete list is?

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 7:53 am

    Reminds me of the many suggested derivations for the given name of Suri Cruise

  5. John Spevacek said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 8:11 am

    Reminds me of numerologists – finding number patterns in everything. I expect better.

  6. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:07 am

    Bill Poser's combination of profound multilingual erudition, passionate anti-Republicanism, and love of word play have taken him this time up a blind alley where I am not prepared to follow. Not me. Not with a surname that is so visibly (as Bill would doubtless notice) identical with the accusative form of a late Latin word meaning "chicken". Cluck cluck!

  7. Sili said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 9:32 am

    So that's why the Pullum crossed the ocean!

  8. Paul M. Postal said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:07 am

    It is ironic is it not that this pathetic and contentless attempt to formulate an attack on
    Sarah Palin should appear on the day when the evidence of her star power and of
    Obama's serious dive into electoral plunge and incipient panic becomes amazingly obvious…polls turned around, MSNBC's bias twins Matthews and Olbermann demoted, Biden contradicting the annointed one on when human life begins, Obama stumbling into talk of his 'Muslim faith', talking now of postponing tax rises, admitting surge worked, etc. etc;.

    Perhaps there is a lesson here on the (un)wisdom of thrusting little bits of political
    propaganda into what bills itself as a blog about natural language.

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    But did somebody else pull 'im?

  10. John Cowan said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 10:54 am

    J'accuse! Fowl play!

  11. Bill Poser said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

    I am surprised that anyone, much less someone like Paul Postal, should think that I meant that anyone should take this, or any similar observation about a politician's name, seriously. Those who have read Language Log for some time will recall that on several occasions I have made the point that politicians' speech habits and errors, real or alleged, should be of no relevance to how one votes when there are important differences in their policies. What makes you think that I would consider a silly observation about a politician's name to be of any greater relevance?

    I think that if you read the post carefully you will find merely that I am pointing out the sort of ridiculous political point that might be made. Nowhere do I assert that anyone ought to pay attention to this. The campaign has already seen less erudite points of the same sort, e.g. the observation that Obama sounds like Osama with the suggestion that this shows that Obama is a Muslim if not an ally of al-Qaeda. I'm merely pointing out what you can get if you bring Greek into the picture.

    As for my anti-Republicanism, that isn't an entirely accurate characterization. I loath the Bush administration and the central tendency of the current Republican party, but there are Republicans for whom I have or have had respect, such as two fine Senators from Vermont, George Aiken and more recently James Jeffords, who, reflecting the way in which his party has developed, finally resigned from it. I have even on occasion voted for a Republican candidate. Many years ago I voted for Charlie Smith for the State Legislature, though to be fair he was nominated by both parties. I once voted for Luther Hackett for governor of Vermont , in that case against his Democratic opponent.

  12. Roger Lustig said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:41 pm

    When Ashkenazic Jews migrated eastward in the wake of pogroms in medieval Germany, they came to Poland, which is derived from the Polish (or Old Church Slavonic or something) word for "field" or "meadow."

    The nomen-est-omen attitude is found all over Jewish culture as part of the punning nature of Biblical language. So the name of the new homeland was explained as the Hebrew "Po-Lin": "here I shall rest" or similar.

    (No, I don't speak that many languages, but have encountered these particular words and traditions in my research.)

    Polen-Polin; Palin-PailOut; McCain-McAbel (or UnAbel); these things are bound to happen, and at many different levels of erudition. Look at what the Democratic candidate has gone through with his "funny" name.

    (Working over the name "Biden" is left as an exercise for the reader.)

  13. Bill Poser said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    @Mark Liberman,

    The overwhelming majority of the world's languages have been quite unknown to American voters. Ancient Greek, in contrast, was once known to a significant and influential minority, and Modern Greek is of course known to the not insignificant number of Greek-Americans. What a name means in Greek is therefore something that not that long ago might have entered, however foolishly, into a political campaign. Indeed, in the 1970s I recall some people pointing out that Spiro Agnew's family name is very close to the Greek for "I don't know".

  14. Joe said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    > Reminds me of numerologists – finding number patterns in everything. I expect better.

    Funny you should say that. Actually, Palin's name can add up to 666 and there are some things about that going around on the itnernet. Mind you, I don't think anyone is arguing that _seriously_, but only using it to rebut the "Obama is a Muslim and the Anti-Christ" crazies. Especially those who ridiculously assert that the Bible says the anti-Christ will be Muslim (it was written hundreds of years before there _were_ any Muslims and it does not mention them; further Obama isn't Muslim to begin with). The email asserting that, and its debunking, can be found on Snopes for those interested.

    Lest anyone believe this calculation as proof, please note that most Biblical scholars take Revelation 13:18 as a reference to Nero, because that explains the variant number 616 found in important early manuscripts like P115. Nevertheless, I think it's a reasonable transcription of the name and the numbers do add up, so it can certainly be used to counter talking points among the less reasonable. That said, there may be other ways to write her name, and there are other methods to add up the values.

    Note that I do _NOT_ seriously think that Mrs. Palin is the Great Beast. Of course, the beast is NOT the same as the anti-Christ, though in the Bible, both are in league with each other, so this might simply open up new cans of worms among those who think that the world will end any second now….

    The calculation itself is thus:

    Shin, Reysh, Hey

    Pey, Aleph, Lamedh, Nun

    Hebrew gematria values using the standard Mispar gadol method:

    Shin = 300
    Reysh = 200
    Hey = 5
    Nun = 50
    Lamedh = 30
    Aleph = 1
    Pey = 80

    SUM = 666

    And here's a reference for those who want to check the numbers:

  15. dr pepper said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 2:19 pm

    Silly people, taking as serious anything asserted by a "poser"!

  16. John Cowan said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    Ancestry.com has this to say about the surname Palin:

    1. Welsh: Anglicized form of the Welsh patronymic ap Heilyn ‘son of Heilyn’, which is probably a derivative of a word meaning ‘to serve at table’.

    2. English: habitational name from Palling in Norfolk or Poling in Sussex. These were named in Old English with the personal names Pælli and Pal respectively, + -ingas ‘followers of’, ‘dependents of’.

    3. French: unexplained.

    Who knows which of these applies. In any case, Palin is Palin's husband's surname.

  17. an_american said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    Is this the real Language Log? Did Mr. Liberman and Mr. Pullum actually made the comments above???

    My dear lord, no wonder after 8 years of the most disgraceful government we ever had, polls still show 50-50… how sad for America. Oh, yeah, "and it's all the democrats fault…"

  18. dr pepper said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    Maybe it means "snow".

  19. Cathy said,

    September 8, 2008 @ 8:01 pm

    Alas, when Michael Palin was the only person with that surname that I knew, I thought it meant witty and outrageously funny. Probably won't be the last time I'm wrong.

  20. Hypatia said,

    September 9, 2008 @ 9:29 am

    It can also mean simply "backward," which describes her views pretty well, too.

  21. Wesley said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    If only more Language Log posters had either a sense of humour or had read Distinction (or should that be 'had read La Distinction'?) they would know not to post such things.

  22. Amys Welt » Blog Archive » Machte meinen Abend: If only the voters knew Greek said,

    September 10, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    […] Language Log: If only the voters knew Greek […]

  23. Chris said,

    September 11, 2008 @ 2:05 am

    "If only more Language Log posters had either a sense of humour or had read Distinction (or should that be 'had read La Distinction'?) they would know not to post such things."


    I would have thought that on a blog like this the respondents would be, well, perhaps not so reactionary. Apparently it takes a different kind of "smart" to know when something is said lightheartedly.

    Perhaps, though, it goes back to younger generations being able to better pick up internet-inflections in people's e-voices.

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