Language is a funny thing and no language is as funny, weird or baffling as English. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been influenced by almost every culture and language it has come into contact with. The purpose of this series is to highlight some of the more interesting instances where an event, cultural practice or person has entered the vocabulary of the modern English speaker.
In case you missed the title, this article is focused on the word ‘laconic’, which is generally defined as “using very few words.” An individual who speaks or writes in a laconic manner does so concisely and succinctly, with a brevity that often borders on bluntness. Laconicism is perhaps best epitomised by the short but sharp phrase ‘less is more.’
The word itself is derived from the region of southern Greece known in ancient times as Laconia. It was in this region that the city-state of Sparta was located. The Spartans were notoriously austere in many aspects of their culture. Indeed, the word spartan is now a synonym for something that is especially frugal or lacking in comfort or luxuries. This tendency towards austerity was extended to the very manner in which they spoke and, perhaps most famously, their sense of humour, which was characterised by its dry, understated wit.
Among the most notable examples of the Spartan’s verbal frugality involved Philip II of Macedon, at the time the most powerful man in the Greek world. He had invaded southern Greece and had received the submission of several other southern city-states. He sent a message to Sparta stating “If I attack you, I shall burn your farms, enslave your people and raze your city.” In what must surely rank as one of the most succinct diplomatic messages of all time, the Spartans responded with only one word: “If.”
Philip never did attack Sparta. Nor did his son, Alexander the Great. Make of that what you will.
The ancient sources are full of amazing Spartan witticism. Below are some of my favourite examples.
When Queen Gorgo of Sparta was asked by an Attic (Athenian) woman, “why is it only Spartan women who can rule men?”, she replied “Because we are actually the only ones who give birth to men.”
Upon being pestered by someone wanting to know who the most exemplary Spartan was, King Demaratus delivered a verbal smackdown in response: “He that is least like you.”
And finally, in the lead up to the fateful Battle of Thermopylae, the Spartan warrior Dienekes was told that the Persian archers were so numerous that their arrows would blot out the sun. He famously replied, “So much the better, we shall fight in the shade.”
So there you have it. It turns out that most of those suspiciously numerous one-liners in the movie 300 were historically accurate. Except for “This. Is. Sparta!”. Yeah, that never happened. Still cool though.