Word of the Month: Eidolon

Eidolon – Idolatry and idiots

An ‘eidolon’ can either be ‘an idealised person or thing’, or ‘a spectre, a phantom’.

One eidolon, two eidola. Or two eidolons; you get a choice on this one. (I know, you’re very welcome.)

But don’t thank me – thank the Greeks. We English adopted ‘eidōlon’ as our own at some point in the early 19th century, somewhere between the births of Friedrich Engels and Leo Tolstoy. It derived from the Greek ‘eidos’, meaning ‘form’ or ‘shape’.

As you might have conjectured from the semantic and orthographic similarity between the two, it’s an ancestor of ‘idol’. (Orthography: the conventional spelling system of a language. What the hell, have two new words this month.) The Late Latin ‘īdōlum’, which was used primarily in ecclesiastical Latin and referred to religious idols, derived from this Greek, which became ‘idole’ in Old French, and then ‘idol’ in Middle English.

It’s interesting that the ideas implied by ‘form’ (as in ‘image’) generated these two separate meanings, and we have to wonder whether the etymological development of this word is telling us something about the nature of idolisation – can an idolised image ever be fully real? Wikitonary’s an ‘elusive entity’ might easily describe many unrealistic, idyllic dreams.

But I’m not here to philosophise. Coleridge’s conversational poem Constancy to An Ideal Object is a good read if you’re interested in answering that question.

And, to delve further into literary depths, eidola took on a special role in ancient Greek literature, in Homer’s Odyssey and many works about the Trojan Horse, some of which even claim that Helen of Troy was never actually physically present in the city. They crop up in books, films, and even gaming today, as ‘spirit-image[s] of a living or dead person’.

And if we want to get even more sophisticated, Urban Dictionary gives ‘Some idiot in gray tights.’ I can’t account for that one.



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