I first heard this word in an episode of the CBC comedy radio show Doctor Bundolo’s Pandemonium Medicine Show – a couple of pretentious types were making love talk and one of them referred to “the terpsichorean twilight.” I didn’t really know what it meant, and the context was utterly unhelpful.

Also, they pronounced it with the stress on the chor. Which is probably how most literate Anglophones would say it on seeing it for the first time: “terp-si-cor-ee-an.” But that’s not the approved pronunciation.

Nope, it dances around some. What you need to know first is that this word is an adjective formed on Terpsichore. Does that look like it should be “terp-si-cor”? Nuh-uh. In the original Greek, it was Τερψιχόρη, “ter-psi-kho-ré.” But in the great (awful) English classicist custom of putting the accent on the antepenultimate in all Greek words, it came to be “terp-sickery.”

And since in English we usually try to avoid putting primary stress on the preantepenultimate syllable, especially when there would be no secondary stress after it, for terpsichorean we move the stress to the penultimate syllable because we can’t have it on the syllable before that because that one is utterly reduced and unstressed and it would be just so wrong to have it get full value after being reduced to zilch (even though it was the long syllable in the Greek original). So it’s “terp-sicka-ree-an.” As I said, it dances.

And dance is where the back half of it comes from: χορός khoros ‘dance’, root of choreography but also of chorus (because choruses in Greek dramas dance). The first half is from τέρπειν terpein, verb, ‘delight’. Together they made the name of the muse of dance: Terpsichore.

That’s a nice, light-footed word, isn’t it? Tapping as it does on the tip of the tongue, the lips, the tip, the back and tip again. It’s often used to refer to dance in general: “Do you fancy a bit of Terpsichore?” But it has a bit of hidden ill in it. Right in the middle is “sick”; in terpsichorean the end has an uncomfortable echo of diarrhea. And I can’t remember when or where, but I remember seeing twerpsichore. Which I guess is douchebag dancing.

Or maybe it’s a term for my efforts in undergraduate dance classes. I bet you didn’t know I took introductory classes in modern dance, ballet, and jazz dance. I got something in the order of a C in modern dance. My worst mark ever. Obviously it was a course I needed to take, because I knew nothing of it at all! And I was very tense and uptight. All my muscles were tight, everything was jerky. I showed a bit of what I had learned to one of my roommate’s friends, a dancer, and she burst into laughter.

In ballet, that kind of tension can pretend to be self-control. Sure. I got a B+, which was an A for effort and a B– for technique. In jazz dance I think I got a B or B–. Those courses destroyed my GPA (well, OK, not destroyed; they just kept me off the Dean’s List). And I’m really glad I took them. I’m still not a great dancer, but I’m better than I was, and I learned a lot more appreciation for it. And I love to watch dance.

So does my wife, who has a BA and MA in dance. In fact, dance is how we met. Not actually dancing – I don’t think my twerpsichore would have charmed her. We were just ushering a dance festival. And now we can usher ourselves out to a nearby theatre in the terpsichorean twilight to watch dance performances.

Thanks to Dawn Loewen for suggesting today’s word.

3 responses to “terpsichorean

  1. in the great (awful) English classicist custom of putting the accent on the penultimate in all Greek words, it came to be “terp-sickery.”

    Do you mean antepenultimate?

    I first encountered (and learned the English pronunciation of) the word Terpsichore in the classic tongue-tying poem “English is Tough Stuff”, which is still a favourite of mine.

    Holy smokes: just discovered (if this article is to be believed) that that poem is actually a short version of an even longer (and more British-English oriented) poem called “The Chaos”, by a Dutch writer named Gerard Nolst Trenité. Whoa.

  2. Pingback: usher | Sesquiotica

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