Greek pygmy is English fist

Another ancient Greek term that has survived for thousands of years to the present day with the same meaning is the word ἡ πυγμή /i pigmí/, a noun that means “fist,” and by extension also a blow with the fist, translated as a “punch” or a “boxing.”

Some English words derived from it are: PYGMY (a person or creature of small stature) and PYGMOID (“like a pygmy”).

There seems to be a connection between the term πυγμή “fist” and, by extension, the distance from the fist to the elbow, which was called by the very similar and probably related term ἡ πυγών, -όνος /i pighón, tis pighónos/ which could mean either “elbow” or “cubit.” The cubit can be a measure from the elbow to the end either of the extended middle finger or of the closed fist. The word πυγούσιος /pighúsios/ was an adjective that meant “of one cubit in length.” Thus it seems like the term “pygmy,” as applied to a person, may not have been so much a “fist-sized” person, but rather a “cubit-sized” one (which is still an exaggeration, but much less of one).

Greek derivatives of ἡ πυγμή:

Ancient πυγμαῖος /pigméyos/ was an adjective that meant “of about the size of a fist” or “pygmy” (as in “small”), but the same word in modern Greek, ο πυγμαῖος /o pigméyos/, has become a noun that means “pygmy” (as in a person of short stature).

An ancient word for “boxer,” πυγμάχος /pigmáhos/ (literally, “fist fighter”), is still the modern Greek term used in that same meaning. In ancient Greek, the word ὁ πύκτης, -ου /o píktis, tu píktu/ (with γ κ and the suffix -της that corresponds to the Latin -tor for a person who performs a given action) was preferred, but the more straightforward πυγμάχος won out.

The modern Greek verb πυγμαχώ /pigmahó/ is a shortening of the ancient πυγμαχέω /pigmahéo/. Both are literally, “I fistfight.” The modern word is the translation of the English verb “box,” and the meaning of the ancient is given as the very similar “I am a boxer.” In ancient Greek, the form πυκτεύω /piktévo/ was preferred to πυγμαχέω , but once again the more straightforward form won.

Modern η πυγμαχία /pigmahía/ (literally, “fist fighting”) is the current Greek word for “boxing.”

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, ἡ πυγμή translates the Hebrew term (Strong’s H0106) אֶגְרֹף eghróph “fist, clenched hand.” Notice that the root GRP is manifest even in English GRasP, GRiP, GRoPe, GRaB. The Hebrew word comes from the root (Strong’s H1640R) גָּרַף gāráph “bear off (violently),” “sweep away.”

References:

  1. Langenscheidt Pocket Greek Dictionary, Greek-English, by Dr. Karl Feyerabend. Berlin: Langenscheidt (via McGraw-Hill), 1969.
  2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, New College Edition, William Morris, editor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
  3. The Oxford Greek Dictionary, Greek-English, English Greek, American Edition, Niki Watts. New York: Berkley Books, 2000.
  4. The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament, with an English translation, and with various readings and critical notes. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970.

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