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Satirical, not satyrical > there’s a difference April 25, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.

Ancient Greece has given the world exceptional examples of art, architecture, government, philosophy and, of all things, words. 

If something is described in satirical (pronounced “sa-teer-i-cal”) terms, it is typically being mocked in the form of a satire, a literary work in which human foibles and follies are ridiculed in an ironic, derisive, sarcastic or witty manner. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, satire can also use sometimes caustic and often sharp language to expose, denounce or deride society’s vices, abuses and evils.

The Athenian playwright Aristophanes, regarded as the most influential Greek satirist, inspired the likes of Horace, the Roman lyric poet, and Shakespeare. Since the Romans loved to copy the Greeks, it’s little wonder that both the idea of satire and its practice is alive and well in today’s television shows, movies and plays.

According to the OED, British historian Goldwin Smith, in the February 1880 edition of Atlantic Monthly, describes the various forms of satire thus: “There are different kinds of satire: the epicurean, which laughs at mankind … the stoical, which indignantly lashes mankind … the cynical, which hates and despises mankind.”

As it turns out, satire comes to us by way of Middle French, and thence from the Latin satira or satura, meaning a “medley,” and referring to a type of poem that denounces society’s flaws. Curiously enough, it is expressed as lanx satura, literally meaning a “full dish”, supposedly a plate or dish of mixed ingredients, such as various kinds of fruit, since lanx means “dish” and satura is the feminine form of “full,” from satis, meaning “enough”.

In this form, The American Heritage Dictionary says that satura was quite possibly derived from the Greek word satur, or satyr, a forest-dwelling deity that is associated with Bacchus, aka Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. This is where the etymology gets interesting, as it is this association with the mythical chorus of satyrs in “satyric” comedies, plays with satyrs, that led to the two words being used interchangeably.

Back in 1509, satire made its first quasi-modern appearance in the English language in Scottish poet Alexander Barclay’s The Ship of Fools, with the line, “Therfore in this satyre suche wyll I repreue…” and the English author George Puttenham was the first to use the word in its meaning as a written composition in The Arte of English Poesie in 1589. A typical 17th century example of satirical is found in this rather silly title of a work by Thomas May: “The Life of a Satyrical Pvppy, Called Nim, who worrieth all those Satyrists he knowes, and barkes at the rest.”

The word history of satire took us back to ancient Greece and dropped us off in Shakespeare’s day. From Greek plays to puppies, etymologies have it all.

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