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The Mystery of Greek Blue and Blue in Greek

Updated on July 23, 2015
Melina Mercouri in Los pianos mecanicos directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, 1965
Melina Mercouri in Los pianos mecanicos directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, 1965 | Source

About a hundred years ago today

in the British parliament, the Prime-Minister was beside himself as he uttered a comment to everyone's disbelief: "Gentlemen, it behoves me to announce this anomalous fact that the revered Greek language has no word for the colour blue!"

Whence the reply: "Anomalous indeed, your honour, since the country is bathed from top to bottom in lustres of deep to deeper to deepest blues..."

And here the great mystery began

and all the King's horses and all the King's men of science and music set themselves to the task of decoding the "lackness" in the name of the colour blue.

Many theoreticians, astrologers, soothsayers, and even a Pythagorean musician proffered theory after theory after theory....

But the King was neither amused nor convinced. How could it be he asked his court? That a country bathed in blue lacks the word for the colour of its genes? From seas to skies to drapes to togas to marbled stone, how could they not have the word to denote what everyone must surely see?

And here, the greatest man

of science and poetry of the time was summoned to the King's court and offered a fortune if he could convince all concerned with a credible tale of the lackness of blue. His name, I believe, was Coriander, and he arrived from Persia, according to some, or India according to others. At any rate, his reputation rested on a successful prediction of a solar eclipse that fated a war to the side that retained him, ensuring his fame across the known ancient world.

He set himself to the task by night in a laboratory for his personal use and by day in a market place for his personal dialectics.

And by night the most credible explanation he could proffer was that by way of a spectrum that treated blue as another form of green, and that therefore what the Greeks called green in a certain place in the spectrum — though whether the spectrum was in the sky or in the mind, we can not be sure — was really blue!

And by day, the most credible explanation he could proffer was that blue disappeared in the crevices between violet, purple and turquoise in the rapid eye movements of that time, which were neither rapid nor entirely in the eye of the beholder, according to the greatest men of analysis of the time named Plato, Zeno and Archimedes.

Now Coriander was a politically astute man

who realized that the King would not be happy with either of these explanations which replaced blue by green and an empty space between three other colours. So he devised a plan to create a new name for the colour blue but pretend that it had been there all along in a corner of a text in the footnotes of a scroll in the Alexandrian library.

The neologism he chose was “atom” pretending that every time a Greek referred to blue in the world the word atom was either stated or implied in the sentence constructed for this. But the King was not happy with this sleight of hand, because he saw in it the illogicality of ubiquitous atoms standing in for blue as well as anything else that needed a name or a reason.

So here,

Coriander had to find a convincing argument for a King who believed that only one cause could be the cause of an effect (blueness) in an empty background, rather than the other way around: that one cause could be selected on a given day by a given observer from a background filled with other “probable causes” that could be selected by another observer on another day, but was not and hence the exception became the rule, instead of the other way around where a rule becomes the exception (but more about this later).

So Coriander had to devise an experiment either in reality or in thought to show that “blue” was everywhere in the background at all times but had never been selected by an observer by the names he chose to name it.

And this he did,

by slipping a potion to the King during his dinner that triggered a dream that involved dolphins in the deep blue sea… But a sea that was everywhere as if the King himself was a dolphin dreaming he was a man dreaming of dolphins in a sea of blue.

And this dream, did indeed convince the King for a time of the ubiquity of blue in the background of everything, until somebody objected with the argument that the proper word for this blue “thing” was not atom, but aether!

So now

Coriander had to merge the essence of blue with aether so that they would be considered one and the same thing bearing only two names instead of one.

And this he did for a time until an astronomer saw in this the same ruse as having green stand in for blue, if green indeed was everywhere in the background, as Coriander had earlier claimed of blue.

Now Coriander was getting desperate

— as it was beginning to seem that he would never live to collect his fortune — and even feverish. But something broke his fever one day: in an abaton in Asclepius’s temple where he went to repose from his stress, he had a dream of an eskimo indian who said to him that in his culture the word “snow” disappeared behind many other words (about 16 to be exact) that named “snow” as it appeared to the observer at the time of naming and/or meaning.

So quickly, Coriander looked up the word “eskimo” and “snow” in the dictionary to see if this argument could be grounded in reality as opposed to fantasy, and realized that indeed the true solution lay in a combination of the one-to-one mapping without a background and the all to all probability mapping which collapsed to a one-to-one mapping with the “all” in the background nevertheless, by virtue of inflecting the language of the observer to match the observation, in this case a kind of blue.

But to get the King to accept the argument he had to contextualize it in something more than words whose inflections had long since been dropped and which had changed into invariant chunks spoken by chunk-heads.

And this he did with the help of a musical friend who arrived to give a concert in support of the thesis in question:

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