Rivers and Stones.

Still reading Weinberger’s The Ghosts of Birds; I’m on the essay “A Calendar of Stones,” section 14 of which begins:

Pseudo-Plutarch is the author of works attributed to Plutarch that are not by Plutarch; he may be one or more writers. His essay “On Rivers” is a minimalist compendium of nomenclature, violence, illicit sex, botany, and geology. In it, he cites works by Agatharchides, Archelaus, Aristobulus, Dercyllus, Dorotheus the Chaldean, Heracleitus, and Nicias of Mallus, all titled “On Stones.” Doubt has been cast as to whether these texts, all lost, actually existed.

Needless to say, I was intrigued, and googling turned up the English translation at Perseus, which begins here, and a parallel Greek/Roman text, which begins here. Sure enough, these river chapters are obsessed with stones with weird histories and qualities; I leave you to explore them, and provide the very last paragraph (from XXV. INDUS) without comment:

Γεννᾶται δὲ ἐν αὐτῷ λίθος κλειτορὶς ὀνομαζόμενος· ἔστι δὲ λίαν μελάγχρους· ὃν κόσμου χάριν οἱ ἐγχώριοι φοροῦσιν ἐν τοῖς ὠταρίοις, καθὼς ἱστορεῖ Ἀριστοτέλης ἐν δʹ περὶ Ποταμῶν.

Nascitur in eo lapis clitoris dictus, qui est nigerrimus et ornatus gratia ab indigenis gestari solet in auriculis, ut docet Aristoteles libro quarto De fluviis.

In this mountain a stone is found which is called clitoris, of a very black color, which the natives wear for ornament’s sake in their ears;—as Aristotle witnesses in his Fourth Book of Rivers.


  1. Watkins (per EtymOnline) says that kleitoris is a diminutive of Greek kleitys, a variant of klitys ‘side of a hill’, from PIE *klei-tor-, a suffixed form of the root *k’lei- ‘lean’, with a sense of ‘little hill’. Other words from this root given by the AHD include {de,re,in}cline and {de,pro}clivity also from the full grade, lid, lean, client, cline, climate, clinic, climax from various extensions of the zero grade, and ladder (the original meaning of klimax) from the o-grade.

  2. Pseudo-Plutarch, wherein most geographical features are named for people who died under bizarre circumstances there.

    It’s like an extended Monty Python skit, except that the meaning of the joke lies just beyond my grasp. Another excerpt:

    >the natives, being covered with the skins of young hinds and waving their thyrsuses in their hands, sing a hymn, of which these are part of the words,

    When wisdom all in vain must be,
    Then be not wise at all;—

    >as Clitonymus reports, in his Third Book of Thracian Relations.

    I think I’m going to rename my band Thracian Relations. Or possibly Clitonymous.

  3. Having read a few more chapters, I haven’t laughed this hard in a while.

    Every river is named for a guy who drowned himself in it. The references are all obscure, with far more citations than LH has mentioned, and all have the most workmanlike titles. Two books “Of Rivers”; one “Of Mountains”; “Scythian Relations”, “Thracian Relations”, “Phrygian Relations.” If I find a book “On Haitian Relations” I’ll know it’s just a modern put-on.

    >Marsyas being overcome and flayed by Apollo, certain Satyrs are said to have sprung from the stream of his blood; as also a river bearing the name of Marsyas;—as Alexander Cornelius recites in his Third Book of Phrygian Relations.

    Well, after all, who could think of a better Phrygi’n reason to name a river than for someone who got flayed in it?

    Except that old Euemeridas the Cnidian has a different version, involving a slowly disintegrating wine-bag made from the flayed Marsyas’ skin

    I tried to find a bit more about Euemeridas the Cnidian. Google gives a handful of results all related to this translation, then helpfully suggests I might be searching for Efemerides the Canadian. Indeed I might.

    Some rivers have so many people throwing themselves in that the name just keeps changing.:

    >STRYMON is a river of Thrace, that flows along by the city Edonis. It was formerly called Palaestinus, from Palaestinus the son of Neptune. For he being at war with his neighbors, and seized with a violent sickness, sent his son Haliacmon to be general of his army; who, rashly giving battle to his enemies, was slain in the fight. The tidings of which misfortune being brought to Palaestinus, he privately withdrew himself from his guards, and in the desperation of his grief flung himself into the River Conozus, which from that accident was afterwards called Palaestinus. But as for Strymon, he was the son of Mars and Helice; and hearing that his son Rhesus was slain, he flung himself into the river Palaestinus, which was after that called Strymon, by his own name.

    Begs the question of how Conozus died, no?

  4. Efemerides the Canadian

    I discover that Sp. “efeméride” is an “acontecimiento notable que se recuerda en cualquier aniversario de él” (not just one important to astrology), or the celebration of one, or a compendium of them. Similarly with Fr. “éphéméride”.

    The first in the hit list for my Google search of “Efemerides the Canadian” was “Efemérides relacionadas con Canadá”.

  5. marie-lucie says

    I had to look up éphéméride in the TLFI as I knew the word but was surprised by its Spanish meaning. The oldest French meaning is similar, especially in dealing with astrology, but the one I know is approximately “agenda, desk or pocket diary with space to write down appointments, etc”. Not that I have ever heard anyone use it, but I have read it.

  6. It’s like an extended Monty Python skit, except that the meaning of the joke lies just beyond my grasp.


  7. For what it’s worth, the “Explanatory Supplement to the Astronomical Almanac”, a 676-page guide to the ins and outs of modern descriptive orbital mechanics, devotes two chapters to the ephemerides of various heavenly bodies in the Solar System. I count six different sources of perturbations, and a reminder that one should use the PPN (Parameterized Post-Newtonian) formulation of the equations of motion– just in case there are relativistic effects.

  8. Watkins (per EtymOnline) says that kleitoris is a diminutive of Greek kleitys…

    It’s a diminutive (with the -ιδ- suffix) of *κλείτωρ ‘hill’, undocumented as an appellative but attested as the name of the Arcadian city of Clitor (Κλείτωρ) on a rivuler of the same name (still known as Klitora). The word κλειτύς ‘slope’ is of course related, but only by being derived from the same root.

    There were many interesting stories told of Clitor, the Clitorians, and the whole Clitoral region, which abounded in rare marvels (like fish that sang like thrushes).

  9. It’s only coming back that I recognize the deft, understated humor of the Weinberger synopsis. “He may be one or more writers.” Yes, he may.

    I’m going to pick up Ghosts of Birds.

  10. Yes, Weinberger is a delightful writer-cum-compiler.

  11. The etymology from *ḱlei- loses some charm when we learn that the earlier form of the name of the Arcadian city was Κλήτωρ with η, not ει (Laurent Dubois, 1986, Recherches sur le dialecte arcadien, vol. II, p. 207-208), and that moreover the place itself is flat, for what that is worth (Pausanias VIII (Arcadia), XXI, 3):

    τῇ δὲ Κλειτορίων πόλει τὸ μὲν ὄνομα ἀπὸ τοῦ παιδὸς ἐτέθη τοῦ Ἀζᾶνος, οἰκεῖται δ᾽ ἐν ὁμαλῷ, κύκλῳ δὲ ὄρη περιέχοντά ἐστιν οὐ μεγάλα.

    Kleitor got its name from the son of Azan, and is situated on a level spot surrounded by low hills.

    In his etymological dictionary of Greek, Pierre Chantraine, after duly reporting the etymology from *ḱlei-, makes his own proposal for κλειτορίς : “J’aimerais autant pour cette formation tardive une dérivation de κλείω « fermer », cf. l’emploi de θύρα chez Ar., Ass. 990.” Here is the passage from the Ecclesiazusae he mentions:

    Γραῦς A:
    οὗτος τί κόπτεις; μῶν ἐμὲ ζητεῖς;
    Γραῦς A:
    καὶ τὴν θύραν γ᾽ ἤραττες.
    ἀποθάνοιμ᾽ ἄρα.

    First Old Woman:
    Hey you, what’s all this knocking? Are you looking for me?
    Young Man:
    Where did you get that idea?
    First Old Woman:
    But you were banging my door.
    Young Man:
    I’d rather die.

    The κλειτορίς would then be the “little key” or “little clasp” (from κλείω) to be worked for opening that door? Following up on Chantraine’s suggestion, an interesting new etymology was recently proposed by Jean-Victor Vernhes in “Une étymologie pour ἡ κλειτορίς, ίδος, le clitoris ?” in Connaissance hellénique n° 138, July 2014, available at the link below:


    Drawing support from the word-play of Aristophanes, Vernhes proposes that the etymological meaning of the word was “key” or “clasp (as of necklace)”. The root would be *klāu- in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (or *kleh₂u- in modern notation).

  12. Interesting, thanks!

  13. You’re welcome, Hat!

    (I learned about Vernhes’s expansion of Chantraine’s proposal from the latest instalment of the Chronique d’étymologie grecque, n° 15 (2016):
    Unfortunately, it’s not free.)

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