I was looking at the Wikipedia article on Barcelona when a photo in the “Education” section caught my eye; it showed a large, attractive, light-filled room and was labeled “Paranymph of the UB.” I am rarely completely thrown by an English word any more; I may want to look up the etymology or the details of the sense, but I can usually figure out the general idea, especially if it’s a transparent classical formation, as this was: Greek παρα- ‘para-‘ + νύμϕη ‘bride.’ But it clearly had nothing to do with brides. My first thought was vandalism (but who would vandalize a Wikipedia article by inserting the word “Paranymph”?); as a first step, I clicked on the photo to see the file name and discovered it was “Paranimf de la Universitat de Barcelona.jpg.” This was the vital clue; I pulled down my Catalan Dictionary (a very odd book in that it has no indication of authorship) and discovered that paraninf (pronounced /pərə’nimf/) is Catalan for “main or central hall of ceremonies [university].’ That solved the practical problem (and I changed the caption to read “Main hall of the University of Barcelona”), but left the problem of why the word had such an improbable meaning. Here the online Diccionari català was indispensable (note the different spelling of the word):

PARANIMF m.: cast. paraninfo.
1. En l’antiguitat, Padrí de noces, home que anava a cercar la núvia i l’acompanyava fins al nuvi.
2. El qui feia el discurs inaugural del curs en les universitats.
3. Sala d’actes principal en algunes universitats.
Etim.: del gr. παρανύμφιος, mat. sign.

So the meaning changed from the Ancient Greek ‘friend of the bridegroom, best man’ to ‘one who makes the inaugural speech at a university course’ (?) to ‘main hall’ (in which such a speech would be given). A lovely semantic transition, and one shared with Spanish (in which paraninfo means ‘main hall, auditorium’); a quick check suggests it did not take place in any other Romance languages (paraninfo in Portuguese means “god-father, honor guest of wedding” according to my antiquated McKay’s Modern dictionary, and in Italian it apparently means ‘matchmaker’). The OED calls English paranymph “Now rare” and has the definitions “1. At a wedding: a bridesmaid or best man. Also fig.” (last citation 1922 J. Joyce Ulysses ii. 375 “Juveniles amatory whom the odoriferous flambeaus of the paranymphs have escorted to the quadrupedal proscenium of connubial communion”) and “2. An advocate; a spokesperson or orator who speaks on behalf of someone else. Now hist. and rare” (e.g., a1722 A. Pennecuik Wks. 368 “Yet for all that splendid show, you be But paranymphs of vice and luxury”).


  1. Why the interrogation point after: ‘one who makes the inaugural speech at a university course’ (?) ?

  2. I don’t know if you already know this meaning as well, but in at least my University in the Netherlands, it’s a word used in Dutch (and English) to mean the people who accompany a PhD candidate defending their thesis. A candidate has two, both of whom are somewhat formally dressed, who are theoretically capable of continuing the defense in the candidate’s stead in case of fainting or similar disaster. In reality, these days, it’s more a way of honoring those who were close colleagues during the thesis-writing, and the paranymphs are responsible for organizing the party.

  3. Why the interrogation point after: ‘one who makes the inaugural speech at a university course’ (?) ?
    Because I don’t know if I’m correctly translating “El qui feia el discurs inaugural del curs en les universitats”; I could, after all, be making the same kind of faux-ami error as whoever translated Paranimf as “Paranymph.” My Catalan is mostly a matter of Romance triangulation.

  4. In French, paranymphe has evolved in a slightly different way, now meaning any long congratulatory speech. Interesting word.

  5. Orpheus Redux says

    I once met a paranymph but neither one of them would have anything to do with me.

  6. Interesting word.

  7. Christophe says

    The Dutch ‘paranimf’ has an article on Wikipedia:
    But the Catalan wiktionary is in need of help:

  8. At the Complutense University here in Madrid, the word Paraninfo is used for a) the big hall in the city used for official events b) the main lecture hall in the old Filosofía y Letras building on the campus. Confusingly, it can also refer to the large grassy area beside this same building which has sports facilities (basketball courts etc) and is used for open-air concerts in the summer. The Paraninfo is slap-bang in the middle of the Ciudad Universitaria area which saw prolonged trench warfare in defence of the city from 1936 to 1939.
    Incidentally, the word paraninfo can be found in the 1611 Covarrubias dictionary of Spanish (under the word “ninfa”). Covarrubias gives only the first of the meanings explained by LH above.

  9. Lord! Is there, on earth, any word that can’t be found in Joyce??

  10. “Because I don’t know if I’m correctly translating ‘El qui feia el discurs inaugural del curs en les universitats'”
    Yes, except that “feia” is past tense: “the one who made the inaugural speech at a university course” (though perhaps I would’ve translated it as “used to make”, because seems the word is not really used in that sense anymore).

  11. J.W. Brewer says

    I was belatedly curious as to whether “paranymph” appeared in the New Testament, as in e.g. the passage where John the Baptist is metaphorically described as the “friend of the bridegroom,” but that’s just fully spelled out as “ho philos tou nymphiou.” The modern Greek word (in the sense of the word used for the man fulfilling the “best man” role at a Greek Orthodox wedding) is “koumboros,” whose etymology is obscure to me, although while not finding it in my Little Liddell I saw that “kouridios” means (or used to mean) “wedded.”

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    Sorry, had a typo. Modern word is “koumbaros,” presumably not related to “baros,” which the Little LIddell glosses as “weight, burden, pressure: hence, grief, misery.”

  13. You didn’t find κουμπάρος in your Liddell because it’s borrowed from Venetian compare.

  14. marie-lucie says

    I bet that Venetian compare is related to Spanish compadre, French compère which may not have the specific meaning connected to a wedding but still refer to a man’s friend, pal, buddy, partner-in-crime (jocularly), etc.

  15. Oh, I’m sure it is; I guess I didn’t mention it because I took it for granted, but I’m glad you spelled it out.

  16. I think that a similar case of semantic transition (or metonymy) could be the Spanish word “santabárbara” and the French one “Sainte-Barbe” used to call nautical magazines. Both that saint and the place to keep gunpowder are related to this explosive.

  17. marie-lucie says

    Jesús: Do you mean that a name for a person has been transferred to that of a place or object which is somewhat related to the person? This is quite common. Saint Barbara became the patron saint and protector of gunners and explosive experts, but I don’t know the story. (Incidentally, it is true that in French “Barbe” is the equivalent of “Barbara”, but it is no longer used as a female name because it sounds exactly like the word for ‘beard’).
    A possibly similar example is the French word une poubelle ‘garbage can’ named for a Monsieur Poubelle, an administrator in Paris who imposed the use of garbage cans in order to discourage people from throwing their garbage in the gutter or the river.

  18. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    “Because I don’t know if I’m correctly translating ‘El qui feia el discurs inaugural del curs en les universitats'”
    In this case I believe “el curs” is not a single course or class, but the entire academic year.
    Spanish universities, and Italian ones too, and probably those of many other European countries though not the US, have an inaugural ceremony to mark the official opening of each academic year — usually, in my experience, week or months after classes have actually started.
    The person delivering the inaugural speech or lecture is not called paraninfo or paranimf any more, but I’m quite confident that the dictionary is referring to that speech.
    Come to think of it, maybe it’s time someone renamed the mundane “Commencement speaker” paranymph.

  19. >Marie-lucie
    I don’t think “santabárbara” is actually an eponymous like your example. However, as I wrote, that woman and the place are related. But, in my opinion, also god-father, according to some web pages I’ve read, was a kind of spokesperson in the wedding, as the man who spoke at the university to announce a course so they are a bit related; then, the transition came from that man to the place where that happened.
    It seems there were sometimes statues of that saint in magazines in order to protect people so sailors ended up calling the place with that name. I imagine a similar phenomenon to “paraninfo”(man) and the place where he spoke.

  20. In this case I believe “el curs” is not a single course or class, but the entire academic year.
    See, that’s exactly the kind of thing I was worried about! Thanks very much for the explanation.

  21. >Marie-lucie
    As a curiosity.-
    I’ve just learnt that, according to some writers, St. Barbara is the eponymous of “barbituric”.

  22. Daria Lieven says

    Because Lucette turned out to be, against all reason and will, the impeccable paranymph.
    Nabokov, Ada

  23. An excellent find!

  24. Trond Engen says

    Welcome to the Paranymphic Games. May the best man wins.

  25. Trond Engen says

    I hate it when my iPad destroys my best lines. Some day I may just bother enough to use 30 seconds to find out how to turn off the auto-complete.

  26. Trond Engen says

    No, that wasn’t my Pad. That was me misediting from “May…” to “When…” and back. I hate that too.

  27. Trond Engen says

    Hat: It seems to me that when you close one thread, the automated spams move to the next. What would happen if you opened a dummy thread and kept it open?

  28. I’m afraid there’s no way of predicting which they’ll spam. Sometimes a new thread stays pretty much spam-free, sometimes it gets attacked with a vengeance (I had to close the latest one on quizzes after I cleaned out a couple hundred spam comments and it almost immediately got a couple hundred more).

  29. So that’s why Andrew Undershaft in Major Barbara named his daughter that. As her boyfriend, the Professor Greek, surely knew.

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