At the Wording Desk

Increase your knowledge of words in English art and science

by learning the roots of the name Thalia, ancient Greek muse of comedy

Bill Casselman

            Annals of Greek Muses' Names
Thalia was the eighth of the nine Muses. Benevolently she watched over comedy and idyllic poetry. As one of the three Graces, Thalia served as divine patroness and superintendent of festive meetings. As keeper of inspiration for bucolic poetry, Thalia carried a shepherd’s staff and, in some depictions, wreaths of ivy festooned her perfect shoulders.

The niftiest trivia about Thalia? That symbol of hers: the staff or crook of a Greek shepherdess. In vaudeville theatres of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Thalia’s hook was used to pull offstage a performer who was failing to perform very well. “Get the hook” is still heard today in live performances when some no-talent loser is bombing onstage.

Thalia’s name, Θάλεια and Θαλία in Greek, means ‘abundance, bounty, plenty’ or, what often accompanies festive profusion, ‘good cheer.’ The verbal root is Greek θάλλειν thallein ‘to bloom, to flourish, to be green and young, to sprout.’ One of the withered sages of Wikipedia says Thalia bore a name meaning Flourisher because what she praised in her songs flourished through time. I think that’s an unimaginative poor guess which pays scant attention to the root’s meaning. Comedy produces ‘good cheer’ and happiness flourishes.

My personal guess is that Thalia, with a name that means ‘green abundance’ or ‘verdure’ may have begun her divine duties as a local fertility goddess superintending the uberous bounty of  olive groves. Then, because she presided over joyous harvest jamborees and olive-crushing funfests, she came, on a broader, panhellenic level, to keep smiling watch over all of produced comedy.

Into the Chemical Laboratory We Traipse
English has a few derivative words from the same ancient Greek root. For example, the chemical element Thallium, atomic number 81. It was named in 1862 by one of its discoverers, William Crookes, who noted that in flame spectroscopy the soft gray metal burned with a beautiful slender green flame and so he named it after the Greek word for ‘green twig,’ θαλλός thallós. Thallium is found in certain iron and copper ores. It is one of the rare metals of the periodic table, soft as lead, and colored like a bruise.

Thallium is toxic and its soluble salts were used long ago to poison vermin. But thallium’s broad-spectrum toxicity left several dead householders lying beside the dead rats, stiff as boiled owls. Today thallium finds use in glass-making, electronics and infrared detectors.

Now We Enter the Greenhouse
Not only in nature but also within the moist remit of a botanical conservatory we find plants of a lowly station, namely the humbler members of the kingdom of Flora: algae, fungi and lichens. The vegetative body of lichens and algae is called a thallus and so one of their botanical tags is thallophyte from modern scientific Greek θαλλός thallos ‘green sprout’ + ϕυτόν phyton ‘plant.’

O Thalia, I’d like to Trail Yuh
Many persons and fictional characters have been named after Thalia. My own fave was Thalia Menninger, a character on the early TV sitcom “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (on CBS, 1959-1963). Thalia was Dobie Gillis’ sometimes reluctant girlfriend played with a delightful, daffy ditsiness by a talented young comedienne named Tuesday Weld.

Other English Words from the Same Greek Root

Greek θαλλός thallos ‘a green shoot’ survives as a technical term in English botany as thallus, undifferentiated vegetable tissue with no stem, no leaves, no true roots.

Perhaps the rarest word based on Thalia is that obscure English adjective antithalian, meaning ‘like a sourpuss, opposed to having fun.’ There is even a psychiatric disorder that features this antithalian symptom prominently. It is anhedonia, the psychological inability to experience pleasure, a disturbance noted among art, dance and theater critics. It appears that Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866 CE), author of Nightmare Abbey (1818), a satire on Gothic novels, may have coined this adjective antithalian. His education would have introduced Peacock to the full table of gods, goddesses and godlets who lusted and squabbled on that divine rock pile Olympus. He would have known that the smiling goddess Thalia was the Muse who watched over comedy.

Thalia’s Duties as One of the Three Graces
As one of three sisters called the Graces or The Charites, Thalia was painted in ancient art usually dancing in a circle with her happy sisters, Aglaea and Euphrosyne. The three were divine attendants of the goddess of Love, Aphrodite to the Greeks, Venus to the Romans. The three handmaidens of comely tress and shapely form looked after the joy, laughter and mirth which attended the sundry shenanigans of Venus.

Ἀγλαΐα in classical Greek meant ‘splendor or brilliant, shining maiden.’ She presided over sexual splendor, glory, erotic magnificence and bodily adornment. Her sister Euphrosyne’s name, Εὐφροσύνη, meant ‘mirth’ or ‘merriment.’ I imagine her as encouraging tickling in bed which might lead to a smooth caress. The most familiar depiction of the three Graces to our modern eyes is in Sandro Botticelli’s 1480 painting Primavera ‘Spring,’now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

Now let us skip off sportively, remembering Thalia through John Milton’s lyric adroitness in his 1645 CE poem “L’Allegro” (Italian ‘the happy person’)

Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee
Jest, and youthful Jollity,
Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles
Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
And love to live in dimple sleek;
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe. . .

Bill Casselman, October 14, 2017

my text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman