I've received "Myrmidon" as the "Good Word"/Word of the Day for July second, 2007. Dr. Beard told us the word is used to refer to:
1. A faithful follower who carries out orders unquestioningly.
2. A member of a warrior nation of ancient Thessaly, Greece, who were led by Achilles in the Trojan War.
He then provided these etymological comments:
Word History: Since today's word comes from a proper noun, the likelihood that it has a traceable etymology is slim to nil.
The interesting historical question is, however: how did the name of a warrior nation that fought bravely in the Siege of Troy come to refer to a docile follower? The explanation goes back to a pseudo-etymology apparently introduced by the French in the 16th century. The French associated this name with the Greek word myrmes "ant", shifting the meaning to "insignificant person". English then (re)combined this meaning with the original sense of the followers of Achilles.
Is the English meaning correct? It seems merely to be an extension of the original French meaning, which Dr. Beard suggests was erroneous.
The original Myrmidons were said to have "fought bravely in the siege of Troy." Were they "insignificant lackeys"? Do we only know of them what Homer said about them? I haven't checked the Iliad to see what's said there about the Myrmidons.
Were the Myrmidons "ant-like"? What "ant-like" qualities did the French have in mind? Did they intend the word to suggest "insignificant person" or were they attempting to ascribe admirable qualities of ants to the Myrmidons? Could the Myrmidons have named *themselves* *FOR* ants because they wished to be compared favorably to ants?
We know about "army ants," which achieve impressive feats when they work together, as social insects, in "super organisms." We're also aware of ants' enormous physical strength, of their fearlessness, and of their fierceness .
A warrior could hope to be compared to an ant because of those qualities. Ants aren't merely "small" or "insignificant." In the "command" context of military activity, complete obedience and faithfulness are valued, as are "machine-like" precision of "execution" of techniques, such as is displayed both by ants and by the best soldiers.
I suspect there may be much more to this "ant" comparison than Robert Beard is suggesting, and this seems worth studying. I'd like to use this word, but I'd like to know more about its history and about its correct meaning.
Jeff Hook, East Orange, NJ, USA
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