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musing

Greek mythology has many grand epics, like the Trojan war and the subsequent wanderings of Odysseus, but its real richness is in its cast of supporting players.  For instance, when Odysseus left for the war he left the upbringing of his son to an old nobleman called Mentor which is, of course, the origin of our mentor. Homer probably coined this name from meno, "to stay, abide" or, considering the extraordinary duration of Odysseus' absence, from menetos, "patient, long-suffering".   It is also thought possible that he was alluding to the word mnemonikos, "mindful", the origin of our mnemonic.

One mythological character whose name is definitely related to mnemonic is Mnemosyne  whose name is Greek for "memory". Although she was a Titan (a race of giants who warred with the gods), she was courted by Zeus, king of the gods, and bore him nine daughters - the Muses. The significance of her name probably lies in the fact that, before writing was invented, poets would have required prodigious memories. Other words related to her name are amnesia (from Greek a-mnesia, "forgetfulness", literally "not-remembering"), amnesty (a deliberate "forgetting") and anamnesis, the recovery of lost memory (literally "not-not-remembering").

For reasons which are unclear, the Romans equated Mnemosyne with Moneta, a name given to Juno in her role as the goddess of coinage. Moneta is Latin for "mint" and is the origin of our words money, mint and monetary.

The semi-divine muses were said to be the origin of all artistic inspiration. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania.  

Calliope means either "beautiful face" or "beautiful voice" (you choose) from Greek kalli- "beautiful" + ops "face" or "voice". She was the muse of epic poetry so it is rather odd that her name was given to a mechanical steam organ. The name of the muse is pronounced kal-EYE-o-pea but in the circus world this peculiarly American instrument is known as a KALLY-oap.

Clio, "fame", was a fitting name for the muse of history - the record of famous deeds. Erato, "passionate", was the muse of singers and lyric poets. Euterpe, "delightful" had a rather specialized role. She was the muse who inspired flute players. Polymnia (from poly "many" + hymnia, "hymns") was, as one might expect, the muse of sacred verse  and Urania ("heavenly") governed the "art" of astronomy. 

Melpomene ("songstress") was the muse of tragedy while her sister Thalia ("cheerful") ruled over comedy.  Symbolic representations of these two muses are often prominently displayed in theaters as the twin masks of the dramatic arts.  The word comedy (from Greek komes, "village" + aoidos, "minstrel") has its roots in ancient village revels but tragedy is not so easily explained. The original Greek word was tragodia which seems to be formed from tragos, "goat" + ode, "song" but there is little agreement on why this should be so. Although the Greek ode is pronounced O-day, it is the origin of our word ode (pronounced ode).

Terpsichore is sometimes used as a synonym for dance and this muse's name means simply "delighting in dance", from terpo, "to delight" + choros, "dance".  Although we now think of a chorus as a group of singers, its ancient Greek ancestor, choros, meant a troupe of dancers who might also happen to chant verse. Choir is just a version of chorus which took a slightly different route on its way into modern English.

There are some words which we do not normally associate with the muses, though we should. Music is literally "of the muse", a museum is a "home of the muses" and a mosaic (from Latin opus musaicum) is "the work of the muses".  More obscure are musette (French for "little muse"), a kind of bagpipe"; miskin (English for "little muse"), also a bagpipe; musophobist, "one who regards poetry with suspicion and dislike", and antithalial (from the name Thales), "opposed to fun or festivity".

Surprisingly, the verb to muse which means "to ponder" has nothing at all to do with the mythical muses.  It comes from the Old French muse, "a muzzle" and originally referred to the hunters' practice of holding a dog's snout in the air so that he could find a scent. The dog must have looked pretty foolish while "lost in thought" like this as this gave rise to the French muser, meaning "to stare stupidly". It was this latter verb which gave us amuse and bemuse.

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