Laconic phrase

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A "laconic phrase" is a very concise or terse statement, named after Laconia (a.k.a. Lacedaemon [Greek Λακεδαίμων]), a polis of ancient Greece (and region of modern Greece) surrounding the city of Sparta proper. In common usage, Sparta referred both to Lacedaemon and Sparta. Similarly, a laconism is a figure of speech in which someone uses very few words to express an idea, in keeping with the Spartan reputation for austerity. This may be used for efficiency (like in military jargon), for philosophical reasons (especially among thinkers who believe in minimalism, such as Stoics), or for better disarming a long, pompous speech (the most famous example being at the Battle of Thermopylae).

The Spartans were especially famous for their dry wit, which we now know as "laconic humour." This can be contrasted with the "Attic salt" or "Attic wit", the refined, poignant, delicate humour of Sparta's chief rival Athens.

Spartans focused less than other Greeks on the development of education, arts, and literature.[1] Some view this as having contributed to the characteristically blunt Laconian speech. However, Socrates, in Plato's dialogue Protagoras seems to reject the idea that Spartans' economy with words was simply a consequence of poor literary education: "... they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle ... This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like some expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child."[2] Socrates was known for admiring Spartan laws,[3] as many Athenians did too,[4] but modern scholars have doubted the seriousness of Socrates' remarks in the above passage about the Spartans' secret love of philosophy.[5] Still, two Spartans - Myson of Chen and Chilon of Sparta - were traditionally counted among the Seven Sages of Greece to whom pithy sayings were attributed.


[edit] Examples

[edit] Spartan

  • A witticism attributed to Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, was a response to a proposal to set up a democracy there: "Begin with your own family."[6]
  • On another occasion, Lycurgus was reportedly asked the reason for the less-than-extravagant size of Sparta's sacrifices to the gods. He replied, "So that we may always have something to offer."[6]
  • Being asked what sorts of exercises and martial arts he approved of, Lycurgus responded, "All types, except those in which you stretch out your hand."[6]
  • When he was consulted on how Spartans might best forestall invasion of their homeland, Lycurgus advised, "By remaining poor, and each man not desiring to possess more than his fellow."[6]
  • When asked whether it was advisable to build a defensive wall enclosing the city, Lycurgus answered, "A city is well-fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick."[6]
  • King Charilaus, explaining why the list of Spartan laws was so short, said: "Men of few words require few laws."[6]
  • King Demaratus, being annoyed by someone asking him who the most exemplary Spartan was, answered "He that is least like you."[6]
  • When someone tried to engage him in conversation at a time and place he thought inappropriate, King Leonidas responded, "Much to the purpose, elsewhere."[6]
  • When the Persians sent envoys to the Spartans demanding the traditional symbol of surrender, an offering of soil and water, the Spartans threw them into a deep well, suggesting that upon their arrival at the bottom, they could "Dig it out for yourselves."[7]
  • On her husband Leonidas's departure for battle with the Persians at Thermopylae, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta asked what she should do. He advised her: "Marry a good man and bear good children."[8]
  • When Leonidas was in charge of guarding the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae with just 7,000 Greek men in order to delay the invading Persian army, Xerxes offered to spare his men if they gave up their arms. Leonidas replied "Molon Labe" (Greek: "Μολών Λαβέ"), which translates to "Come and take them". [9] Today this is, among other things, the motto of the Greek 1st Army Corps.
  • When he was asked why he had come to fight such a huge host with so few men, Leonidas answered, "If numbers are what matters, all Greece cannot match a small part of that army; but if courage is what counts, this number is sufficient." On being again asked a similar question, he replied, "I have plenty, since they are all to be slain."[10]
  • Herodotus recounted another incident that preceded the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartan Dienekes was told the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys, their arrows would blot out the sun. He responded with “So much the better, we'll fight in the shade”.[11] Today Dienekes's phrase is the motto of the Greek 20th Armored Division.
  • On the morning of the third and final day of the battle, Leonidas, knowing they were being surrounded, exhorted his men, "Eat well, for tonight we dine in Hades." [12]
  • Leonidas asked a Spartan to take a final communication about the battle home; the man declined, saying "I came here to fight, not to act as a messenger." He made the same request of another Spartan, and received the reply: "I shall do my duty better by staying here, and in that way the news will be better."[13]
  • After the Greeks ended the threat of the second Persian invasion with their victory at Plataea, the Spartan commander Pausanias ordered that a sumptuous banquet the Persians had prepared be served to him and his officers. "The Persians must be greedy," he remarked, "when, having all this, yet they come to take our barleycakes." [14]
  • When asked by a woman from Attica, "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?", Gorgo replied, "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men."[6]
  • Also from Herodotus: "When the banished Samians reached Sparta, they had audience of the magistrates, before whom they made a long speech, as was natural with persons greatly in want of aid. Accordingly at this first sitting the Spartans answered them that they had forgotten the first half of their speech, and could make nothing of the remainder. Afterwards the Samians had another audience, whereat they simply said, showing a bag which they had brought with them, 'The bag wants flour.' The Spartans answered that they did not need to have said 'the bag'; however, they resolved to give them aid." [15]
  • Polycratidas was one of several Spartans sent on a diplomatic mission to some Persian generals, and being asked whether they came in a private or a public capacity, answered, "If we succeed, public; if not, private."[6]
  • One famous example comes from the time of the invasion of Philip II of Macedon. With key Greek city-states in submission, he turned his attention to Sparta and sent a message: "If I win this war, you will be slaves forever." In another version, Philip proclaims: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." The Spartan ephors sent back a one word reply: "If."[16] Subsequently, both Philip and Alexander would avoid Sparta entirely.
  • Demetrius I of Macedon was offended when the Spartans sent his court a single envoy, and exclaimed angrily, "What! Have the Lacedaemonians sent no more than one ambassador?" The Spartan responded, "Aye, one ambassador to one king."[17]
  • After being invited to dine at a public table, the sophist Hecataeus was criticized for failing to utter a single word during the entire meal. Archidamidas answered in his defense, "He who knows how to speak, knows also when."[6]
  • Spartan mothers or wives gave a departing warrior his shield with the words: "With it or on it!" (Greek: Συν ται η επι ται! Syn tai i epi tai! or Ή ταν ή επί τας! E tan i epi tas!), implying that he should return (victoriously) with his shield, or (his cremated body in an urn) upon it, but by no means after saving himself by throwing away his heavy shield and fleeing.[18]
  • The king of Pontus engaged a Spartan cook to prepare their famous black broth for him, but found it distasteful. The cook explained, "To relish this dish, one must first bathe in the Eurotas."[6]
  • Upon being asked to come hear a person who could perfectly imitate a nightingale, a Spartan answered, "I have heard the nightingale itself."[6]
  • When asked what dowry she was giving her bridegroom, a poor Spartan girl said: "My father's common sense."
  • After an Athenian accused Spartans of being ignorant, the Spartan Plistoanax agreed: "What you say is true. We have learned none of your evil ways."[6]

[edit] Other historical examples

  • When news of the death of Philip II reached Athens in 336 BC, the strategos Phocion banned all celebratory sacrifice, saying: "The army which defeated us at Chaeronea has lost just one man."[19]
  • The heavy price of defeating the Romans in the Battle of Asculum (279 BC) prompted Pyrrhus to respond to an offer of congratulations with "One more such victory and the cause is lost" (In Greek: Ἂν ἔτι μίαν μάχην νικήσωμεν, ἀπολώλαμεν Án eti mían máchin nikísomen, ápolólamen).[20]
  • After the execution of the Catiline conspirators in 62 BC, Cicero announced "Vixerunt" ("They had lived.").
  • As Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon in northern Italy in 49 BC, signifying the beginning of Caesar's civil war, he is reported to have simply said "Alea iacta est" ("The die is cast!").
  • Julius Caesar memorialized his swift victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus in the Battle of Zela in 47 BC with the words "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered").[21]
  • According to a legend recorded in the Primary Chronicle for year 6472, Sviatoslav I of Kiev (circa 962–972 AD) sent a message to the Vyatich rulers, consisting of a single phrase: "I come at you!" (Old East Slavic: "Иду на вы!" Idu na vi!).[22] The chronicler may have wished to contrast Sviatoslav's open declaration of war to stealthy tactics employed by many other early medieval conquerors. This phrase is used in modern Russian to denote an unequivocal declaration of one's intentions.
  • In Chapter 76 of Njál's saga, Thorgrim and a few other grudge-bearing men were scouting around Gunnar Hámundarson's house. Gunnar woke up and stabbed Thorgrim through a gap with an atgeir (a type of spear). Thorgrim returned to his comrades, who asked if Gunnar was home. "Find that out for yourselves, but this I am sure of, that his atgeir is at home," he said, and fell down dead.
  • After the humiliation of his envoys in 1219, Genghis Khan's response to the Shah of the Khwarezmid Empire was (according to Bevin Alexander): "You have chosen war. That will happen which will happen and what it is to be we know not; only God knows."[23]
  • When asked to surrender the Imperial Guard during the Battle of Waterloo, General Cambronne is recorded as replying: La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas - "The Guard dies, it does not surrender". Some sources also record his response as the single word Merde (shit).[citation needed]
  • During the early 19th century struggle for central Arabia between the families of Al Rashid and Al Saud, Shaykh Abdul Aziz Al Rashid wrote to King Abdul Aziz Al Saud suggesting that rather than having their armies battle, the two leaders should settle the matter through single combat. The King replied with a one-line letter "From Abdul Aziz the living to Abdul Aziz the dead."[citation needed]
  • In 1809, during the second siege of Saragossa, the French demanded the city's surrender with the message "Peace and Surrender" ("Paz y capitulación"). General Palafox's reply was "War and knife" ("Guerra y cuchillo", often mistranslated as "War to the Knife").
  • In 1843, British forces led by General Charles Napier conquered the province of Sindh in India. On his conquest he was supposed to have sent a one word message in Latin to his commander, Peccavi, meaning "I have sinned" ("I have Sindh"), making it not only a laconic phrase, but also a bilingual pun. In fact this message was suggested by Punch at the time, since Napier had been acting against orders.[citation needed]
  • Shortly after taking command of the French 9th Army during the early stages of the First World War, then-Lieutenant General Ferdinand Foch summarised his situation with the words "My center is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I attack." [24] (see also Chesty Puller, below)
  • On October 27, 1917, violinist Mischa Elman and pianist Leopold Godowsky listened in Carnegie Hall as sixteen-year-old violin prodigy Jascha Heifetz gave his first U.S. performance. At intermission, Elman wiped his brow and remarked "It's awfully hot in here", to which Godowsky retorted, “Not for pianists!”[25]
  • On October 28, 1918 the Austrian-Hungarian ruler Charles I of Austria tried to persuade the Slovene leader Anton Korošec not to join an independent Yugoslav State by offering him to establish an autonomous United Slovenia within the Habsburg Monarchy. Korošec replied in German: Es ist zu spät, Majestät ("It is too late, your Majesty") and then, according to his own account, slowly left the room. The State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was declared the next day with Korošec as its de facto leader.
  • American President Calvin Coolidge had a reputation in private of being a man of few words and was nicknamed "Silent Cal." A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you." His reply: "You lose."[26]
  • Nobel Prize-winning British physicist Paul Dirac was notoriously taciturn.[27] During the question period after a lecture he gave at the University of Toronto, a member of the audience remarked that he hadn't understood part of a derivation. There followed a long and increasingly awkward silence. When the host finally prodded him to respond, Dirac simply said, "That was a statement, not a question."[28]
  • Physicist Wolfgang Pauli (also a Nobel Prize winner), shown a young physicist's paper, lamented, "This is not even wrong."[29]
  • Early in his career, Irish author Samuel Beckett worked for a brief spell as a teacher in Campbell College in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The college headmaster criticised Beckett for his acerbic comments on student's papers, reminding him that the students' families represented the "cream of Ulster". Beckett replied "Yes, I know - rich and thick."[30]
  • During World War II when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas refused Axis demands for occupation of Greek territory under threat of war, he was supposed to have replied with a single word - Οχι (Ochi)- "No." The anniversary of his refusal is today celebrated as Oxi Day. In fact, his response was in French - Alors, c'est la guerre - "it is war, then".[citation needed]
  • During the Battle of the Bulge General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne, refused to surrender to the German forces with a note on which he wrote one word: "NUTS!"[31]

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. ^ Plato, Hippias Major 285b-d.
  2. ^ Protagoras 342b, d-e, from the translation given at the end of the section on Lycurgus in An alternative translation by A. Beresford and R. Allen is as follows: "...they claim not to have any interest in [philosophy] and put on this big show of being morons...because...they want people to think that their superiority rests on fighting battles and being manly... You can tell that what I say is true, and that Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and argument, by this: if one associates with the most inferior Spartan, one at first finds him somewhat inferior in speech; but then at some chance point in the discussion he throws in a remark worthy of noticing, brief and terse, like a skilled marksman, so that the person he's talking to appears no better than a child."
  3. ^ Plato, Crito 52e.
  4. ^ Plato, Republic 544c.
  5. ^ p. 255, A.E. Taylor, Plato: The Man and His Work, Meridian Books, 6th ed., 1949; p. 83, C.C.W. Taylor, Plato: Protagoras, Oxford University Press, 2002; p. 151, A. Beresford, Plato: Protagoras and Meno, Penguin Books 2005.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Plutarch: Life of Lycurgus
  7. ^ Herodotus The Histories, Book Seven, section 133.
  8. ^ Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 225a.2.
  9. ^ Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 225c.11. This work may or may not be by Plutarch himself, but it is included among the Moralia, a collection of works attributed to him but outside the collection of his most famous works, the Parallel Lives.
  10. ^ Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 225c.8-9.
  11. ^ Herodotus The Histories, Book Seven, section 226.
  12. ^ Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 225d.13.
  13. ^ Bradford, Ernle (2004-03-30). Thermopylae: The Battle for the West. New York: Da Capo Press. p. 141. ISBN 0306813602. 
  14. ^ Plutarch, Apophthegmata Laconica, 230f.6.
  15. ^ Herodotus The Histories, Book 3, section 46.
  16. ^ Garland, Robert (1998-08-30). Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 81. doi:10.1336/0313303835. ISBN 0313303835. 
  17. ^ Plutarch: Life of Demetrius
  18. ^ PBS
  19. ^ Plutarch, Parallel Lives, "Phocion", 16.6.
  20. ^ Plutarch: Life of Pyrrhus
  21. ^ Julius Caesar, The Gallic Wars.
  22. ^ The Russian Primary Chronicle
  23. ^ "How Great Generals Win: A Military ... - Google Book Search:".,M1. Retrieved on 2009-03-17. 
  24. ^ Neiberg, Michael (2003), Foch: Supreme Allied Commander in the Great War, Brassey's, ISBN 157488672X 
  25. ^ Nicholas, Jeremy. "Wit and Wisdom". Retrieved on 2007-10-29. 
  26. ^ Coolidge, Calvin (2001), Hannaford, Peter, ed., The Quotable Calvin Coolidge: Sensible Words for a New Century, Bennington, Vermont: Images From the Past, pp. 169, ISBN 1884592333, 
  27. ^ This began early. When Dirac was a child, his authoritarian father, a teacher of French, enforced a rule that Dirac speak to him only in French, as a device to encourage him to learn the language. But since young Dirac had difficulty expressing himself in French, the result was he spoke very little.
  28. ^ Dirac, Gisela. "Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902-1984)". DIRAC Family Research. Retrieved on 2007-10-02. 
  29. ^ Peierls R (1960). "Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958". Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society (Royal Society (Great Britain)) 5: 174–92. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0014. 
  30. ^ Knowlson, James (1996). Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury. p. 79. ISBN 0747527199. 
  31. ^
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