The wonderful meaning of the word ‘writer’ in Greek


There are two kinds of people who fully realize the importance of words and the power that lies in their hidden meaning: writers and politicians; and even though both base their careers on the use of appropriate words, the former are not nearly as dangerous as the latter in the case they succeed.

But that’s beside the point I want to make today.

Since words are so important to writers, what about the word ‘writer’ itself? In English it just connotes ‘a person who writes’: a scribe, a scribbler. It’s all too logical and plain. Even the word ‘author’, deriving from the Latin verb ‘augere’ (to create something original, to increase or to build up) which gives us ‘auctor’ (‘autor’ in old French, hence the modern English ‘author’) merely signifies the creator of original work. Not a bad definition either but, once again, fails to quite nail it.

In Greek, however, the word ‘writer’ is so much more than a job description. 

A writer, in modern Greek, is called a ‘syggrafeas’ and this word has remained virtually unaltered in the Greek language since at least the 5th century BC. ‘Syggrafeas’ is a composite word, comprised of ‘syn’ (a prefix signifying ‘with’ or ‘together with’, ‘in coalition’, equivalent to the Latin ‘cum’ which gives us the modern English ‘co’, as in 'cofounder', 'colleague', etc.) and ‘grafeas’, literally meaning ‘scribe’ or ‘person who writes’. 

Therefore, a ‘syggrafeas’ is a ‘writer who writes with someone or something else’. Literally, a 'co-writer'. 

And that’s where things get bizarre and interesting:

At first glance this is quite an absurd definition of the word writer, since writers work predominantly alone and a great deal of the word / idea formulation takes place in the solitude of their mind.

Many explanations have been put forth in the attempt of deciphering this semantic riddle: Some say that it merely echoes the practice of some ancient writers who would dictate their work to professional scribes – classical antiquity’s equivalent of Microsoft Word. A more modern view claims that this mysterious company of the writer is the hypothetical reader – the abstract idea of the person to whom the work will be addressed once it’s completed.

In my opinion, we have to dig deeper in order to get to the truth of the matter.

The most ancient Greek writers, Homer and Hesiod, begin their works with an invocation to the Muses, the deities presiding over Arts and Letters. In effect, they call upon these divine beings to guide their scribbling hand and grant them the gift of elegant, vivid and appropriate words.

In other words, the Muses are the personification of that ‘force’ or ‘mental energy’ we call today ‘inspiration’.

A syggrafeas, therefore, is not a mere scribe. He is more than a writer. He is someone who has tapped into that hidden potential of his creative faculties: someone who can read what is already there on the blank page and give it flesh and bones through the medium of words.

Sure enough, trivial ‘mechanic’ work is a large part of writing. Yet truly great writing, as all authors attest, flows out. It is original and at the same time it is as if it preexisted in some obscure recess of his mind.

From personal experience I can tell you that it’s a very subtle sensation: it’s like receiving dictation from one’s self or being given a manuscript written in images and emotions. Once your mind’s eye has been opened to its pages the words flow out of your fingertips to give it corporeal form; one capable of coherently communicating it to the reader.

A good writer is one who is adept at entering that state and reading the unseen manuscript, transcribing it into the real world. A bad one is simply someone who doesn’t yet have the skill to recount vividly and accurately what he has seen.

I like to think that a writer’s work is never entirely his own. It has been given to him ‘from above’, as the old philosophers say. Still, he is not a mere receptacle, a babbling oracle. He coalesces and harmoniously works together with the unseen world to bring forth its pearls into this narrow strip of consciousness which we arrogantly call ‘reality’. 

Even when in solitude, the writer is never alone. And I find the thought that this subtle secret has been coded into the Greek word used to designate my fellows-in-craft for over twenty-five centuries peculiarly uplifting. 


Article Published: Wednesday, 16 March 2016