Sunday, January 24, 2010

Is the word 'triskeles' the plural of 'triskele'?

In numismatics, 'triskeles' is singular. For example, John Melville Jones (A Dictionary of Ancient Greek Coins) defines it as “... a device formed or based upon three legs joined at the hip...”. [emphasis mine].

Wikipedia and Wiktionary considers the word to be 'triskele'. 'triskeles' is the plural of 'triskele'. This isn't merely a Wikipedia error, the Oxford English Dictionary considers the word to be 'triskele', although it undermines itself because of one its reference citations uses 'triskeles' in a singular context.

Google Books knows of 846 mentions of 'triskele' and 780 mentions of 'triskeles'. Some of the triskeles mentions are from numismatic fields, which use the word as a singular, and others are clearly using it as a plural (for example, discussing “scrolls and triskeles”.

The earliest English reference in Google Books to 'triskele' is 1868, The runic hall in the Danish old-northern museum by George Stephens. The earliest singular reference to 'triskeles' is an article on acquisitions of the British Museum in The Classical Review from 1889.

I discussed this topic in a thread on FORUM's Classical Numismatics Discussion Board where it came out that the Greek word Tri-skelês is an adjective and thus neither singular nor plural. A similar Greek word that made it into English as an adjective is 'isosceles' used to describe triangles.

I believe there are enough authorities using 'triskeles' as a singular to get it into the OED and other dictionaries as a variant spelling of 'triskele'. Certainly Barclay Head uses it as singular, and the OED cites him as an authority under 'triskeles' (for the similar word 'triskelion'). I think we have a case of the same Greek word being borrowed into English twice — with different spellings!

2 comments:

Voz Earl said...

"I discussed this topic in a thread on FORUM's Classical Numismatics Discussion Board where it came out that the Greek word Tri-skelês is an adjective and thus neither singular nor plural."

Ed,

I don't quite understand Pat's point. Adjectives in Greek express number and gender the same as nouns do, which is why they are easily used as substantives. Triskelês, -es is listed in the LSJ lexicon as a vowel-declension adjective with two endings (-ês = masc/fem; -es = neut). Therefore, unless I am overlooking something, it must be either masc. singular or fem. singular. The plural forms would be triskeleis = m/f and triskelê = n.

Voz Earl

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