I’ve just read the longish chapter “Catastasis” (beginning on page 167 in my Back Bay edition) of Daniel Martin (see this post); it’s brilliant, and redeems much of what I was a bit impatient with in the earlier part of the novel (which, after the amazing first chapter I quoted in that earlier post, settles into a fairly conventional life-and-loves narrative). But of course I had to investigate the title, which meant nothing to me as an English word (in Ancient Greek, κατάστασις primarily means ‘establishment, institution,’ and in Modern Greek, κατάσταση is the basic word for ‘condition, state’ or ‘situation, circumstances’; ‘in (a) good condition’ is σε καλή κατάσταση). It isn’t in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, but it is of course in the OED, and it turns out to be a term for (to quote Wikipedia‘s creaky old definition) “the third part of an ancient drama, in which the intrigue or action that was initiated in the epitasis, is supported and heightened, until ready to be unravelled in the catastrophe.” The interesting thing is that it is not a classical term; it was invented by Scaliger in his Poetics (published posthumously in 1561), information which I added to the Wikipedia article (with, of course, references). My question is how Scaliger came up with these classical-sounding but unclassical terms; does anyone know enough about Renaissance philology and criticism to have an idea?


  1. Not me.
    It’s not as good as cat-a-stasis, but in full pursuit of the hot dog I was looking up “sausage” in the OED today and I came across “comminute”, which means “to reduce into smaller parts, make smaller”. You’re all going to say you use comminute all the time; well, I don’t believe it. Language probably knew comminute, but that’s it.

  2. As Wikipedia sort of implies, it’s a correction of Donatus’s scheme, right? The rest of the terms are from him. So, I’d imagine it’s modeled on those, too.
    Donatus vaguely credited the Greeks.

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    @AJP Crown: Some bone fractures are called “comminuted,” so medical practitioners know the word in this form.

  4. dearieme says

    AJP: Comminution is a commonplace industrial process – not at all recherche. Sorry.
    Oi, Hat: is this any good?

  5. [*ahem*] … How engaging, that epitasis is the mot juste and not epistasis (OED: “1. Med. a. The checking of any discharge, as of blood or menses. b. A pellicle that forms on the surface of urine after it has stood. rare—0”). You’d need to go back to *stā- to find what joins the two.
    Greetings from the south. All’s well here; but I seem to have missed everyone’s birthdays, so prolonged was my absence. You know I mean well.
    For the record, I have recently edited an extended piece on the mechanics of rock-crushing that uses comminution and its verb. Passim.

  6. … because you would not find anything for epitasis at *stā-, and would be impelled toward *ten-. No deep join, in fact. Unless it be in Nostratic, or Urdravidian of course.

  7. Ahem indeed, Doctor ! Good to hear you again, but must you sidle up so of a sudden ? I nearly dropped my contenance.
    A pellicle that forms on the surface of urine after it has stood.
    Another dinosaur anklebone, from which the entire creature can be imaginatively reconstructed. Those were the days when curiosity was in full swing, and retorts of urine stood around in one’s study. My retorts often contain gall, but that’s not the same thing.
    MW defines gall as: “brazen boldness coupled with impudent assurance and insolence”. Now that must be an optimal semantic packing.

  8. Ah, old Grumbly! I am um, … relieved that you have been filling in the retorts in my absence. And remember: oak gall makes a robust ink. On the road and my iPhone, so brevity must be the epiphenomenon of wit, faute de souls and hold the syllepsis amen. More, soon enough.

  9. I knew everyone but me would know it, but not that you’d actually be using it. Thank goodness for the iphone and welcome back, No. We missed you very much.

  10. David Marjanović says

    You’re all going to say you use comminute all the time; well, I don’t believe it. Language probably knew comminute, but that’s it.

    Occasionally comes up in papers about herbivorous dinosaurs, but not often.

  11. Welcome back, Noetica! Keep your phone charged and don’t be a stranger!

  12. Oi, Hat: is this any good?
    The LRB Keyboard Reference Mouse Mat? Wouldn’t know; I don’t use a mouse. (Excites the cats too much.)

  13. Occasionally comes up in papers about herbivorous dinosaurs
    Course. I meant, obviously, excluding references to herbivorous dinosaurs.

  14. herbivorous dinosaurs
    At first I thought this was some obscure joke, but it’s not:

    In crocodilians, stomach stones most likely serve as ballast (Taylor, 1993), in lizards and turtles pebbles may well aid in comminuting plant tissues and chitinous skeleton of insects. It has been suggested that herbivorous dinosaurs swallowed large stones that collected in a birdlike gizzard grinding the poorly masticated herbage.

    One often sees this “it has been suggested” expression in scientific papers. It leaves me with the impression that science is about suggestions. I wonder if “suggest” is a euphemism for “has argued that”, in the sense of “has published reasoning tending to show that”. Is the word “argue” considered unscientific ?

  15. Anything that hasn’t been proved has been “suggested”. For example if I suggest we eat our lunch in the park, you can’t prove it.

  16. “It has been suggested” probably refers to a hypothesis which has been neither proven nor disproven. It strikes me as a reasonable and unproblematic way of referring to such hypotheses.

  17. Ah, I see now: “suggested” is being used as a soft equivalent of “hypothesized”.

  18. Indeed, it is better that it should be so, for one who wishes to make a verb of hypothesis will nine times out of ten come out with hypothecate meaning ‘to pledge or pawn’. Hypotheses non fingo, said Newton, meaning that he framed no metaphysical speculations.

  19. I imagine that some scientists reserve “hypothesis” and “hypothesize” for ideas that have/will/could be tested. “Suggestion” and “suggest” are looser in that respect.

  20. And what is a conjecture?

  21. I suspect that a wiki author wanting to introduce an interesting idea of unknown truth-value into his article might end up settling on “suggest”, possibly after a wiki conference on the back pages. In such a case the mushiness would be deliberate, though not necessarily the deliberate choice of a single mind.

  22. I think conjecture is more mathspeak than scispeak.

  23. dearieme says

    In my writing, a “conjecture” is a hypothesis for which I am not going to propose a test. Or so I suggest.

  24. So “gall” is divided into three parts, “brazen boldness”, “impudent assurance” and “insolence”.
    I wonder which part floats to the top and which settles at the bottom if you let a retort-full stand for a few days.

  25. Bill Walderman says

    The Greek noun “katastasis” is a deverbal noun from “kathistemi” (kata+histemi), a verb which has a wide range of meanings, and the noun could take on any of those meanings. One basic meaning of the verb is “to set up” or “establish.” I think the term “catastasis” as applied to Greek tragedy was meant to denote the section of the drama that sets up the situation leading to the “catastrophe,” or “reversal,” “overturning.” So “katastasis” might be rendered in English as the “set-up.”
    By Julius Caesar Scaliger’s generation (early 16th century), humanist scholars like him had a thorough mastery of ancient Greek, and he undoubtedly knew both Latin and Greek backwards and forwards (as well, probably, as Hebrew and Aramaic). He made many conjectural emendations to corrupt passages in ancient texts that have been accepted by most subsequent editors.
    His son, Joseph Justus Scaliger, made even more important and lasting contributions to the recovery of the ancient world, not just in editing texts, but in working out the relative chronologies of ancient civilizations and the dating of ancient events. Although, of course, many of the details have been corrected, his work is still a principal foundation of our present-day knowledge of ancient history.

  26. Thanks, that’s an excellent exegesis!

  27. I’ve just finished studying homeostasis, a wonderful 1926 idea, used in a Strugatskys’ novel. So -statis still remains productive.
    I will now now add catastasis to my collection.

  28. Joseph Justus also gave us the Julian date, named after his father. It’s the count of days since January 1, 4713 B.C.E. by the Julian calendar (named after the other Julius Caesar), which is November 24, 4174 B.C.E. by the proleptic Gregorian calendar. I’m posting this at approximately JD 245575.66.

  29. In that WiPe article, there is not a word about the relative proximity of 4713 BCE and 4004 BCE (relative to the time which has passed since then), when the biblical world was created according to Ussher.

  30. I had much the same thought, Stu. When follwoed the link, for a moment I had the impression that the Julian date had been invented by someone who believed in Ussher’s chronology.
    The WiPe article also says that Justus claimed to have named it after the Julian calendar, so not after his father.

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