Odd Words: Cataphract

CataphractWelcome to page 43 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition! This was a pretty typical page with a good mix of known and unknown words. I went with “cataphract.”

A Very Special Sex Slave

The page started with a few words in the neighborhood of “catalyst.” They are words most people know — even if they’ve never taken chemistry. But right after them I got a surprising introduction to the word “catamite.”

It is “a boy kept for taking part in homosexual activities.” It’s quite an old word — dating back to the 16th century, when (as I understand it), finding boys attractive was something that heterosexual men did without social criticism. The word traces back to the ancient Greek word for the hero Ganymede.

The word reminds me of Spartacus. There is a scene where Crassus (Laurence Olivier) tells Antoninus (Tony Curtis) about liking oysters and snails — a very thin reference to his bisexuality and intent to bed the young man. This causes Antoninus to run away and join Spartacus.

Medical Words

Not surprisingly, there were a number of medical words. They must be arcane because they mostly don’t appear in regular dictionaries. For example, there is “catamnesis” — “the medical history of a sick person.” Then there was “cataphoresis” — “the action of passing medicinal substances through living tissue in the direction of a positive electric current; electrophoresis.” And so on. Not very inspiring stuff.

Theater

There were two unusual words that relate to theater. The first, I knew: “catastrophe.” Obviously, it has another definition. But in terms of theater, it is “the decisive point in a play, especially a tragedy.” This word I knew, but only because I had researched it in light of Samuel Beckett’s play Catastrophe. It’s 5 minutes of torture — but probably a good encapsulation of the lives most people live.

The other word is “catastasis.” It is “that part of a play immediately preceding the climax.” This is a very useful word. I often find myself talking about that part of play or movie. It is generally when things look like they might work out in a tragedy, or where they look hopeless in a comedy.

Cataphract

Everything in today’s post came from the first column of page 43. That includes today’s word: “cataphract,” which I’ll admit is not all that interesting.

Cat·a·phract  noun  \kat’-əfrakt\

1. an armed warship of ancient Greece

2. a Roman soldier in mail.

Date: Late 17th century.

Origin: from Latin, from Greek kataphraktos, which means “clothed in full armor.”

Example: In brief, from the Battle of Adrianople (378), the supremacy of the Roman infantry legion was superseded by the charge of the heavy armored horseman — the cataphract, a development of, primarily, Iranians that spread to dominate Europe and western Asia for over a thousand years, fundamentally reshaping economies, politics, and social organization. –Harry Eagar, Winning Edge

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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