• ostracon •
ahs-trê-kahn • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. (Archaeology) An ancient potsherd (shards of broken pottery) with writing on it. 2. Any ancient inscribed fragment.
Notes: The plural of today's word, like all neuter Greek words ending with -on, may be ostraca, though ostracons, or even ostracon is also OK. Although any potsherd with an inscription on it is an ostracon, the ancient Greeks used ostraca in voting on whom to ostracize. Since broken pottery was commonplace, shards were readily available.
In Play: Because of its narrow meaning, today's Good Word is a difficult one to play with. Our contributor sent an interesting article about a limestone ostracon used in sense (2.): "Ostraca from Deir el-Medina show that workers in that community received a combination of medical care, prayer, and magic."
Word History: Ostracon was an ancient Greek word for "potsherd" derived from osteon "bone" as in osteoporosis "decrease in bone mass and density". The word ostracize was borrowed by English from Greek ostrakizein "to ostracize", obviously based on ostrakon. In ostreon "oyster" we again see the R used in ostracon. Greek came by osteon from the Proto-Indo-European word (h)ost- "bone", which turned up in Russian and other Slavic languages as kost' "bone". (Let's now turn to thank Paul Ogden for recommending today's Good Word and sending in the link above to exemplify it.)
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