Monday, July 28, 2008

Serf's Up!

David Denby’s review of WALL-E (The New Yorker, July 21, 2008) contains this description: “. . . squadrons of square-shouldered helots who try to squash the slightest sign of free will.” Let’s hear it for sibilance.

Helos was a town in Laconia. Some of its inhabitants were bound in a permanent condition of serfdom. They were suspended between outright slavery and free citizenship. They were permanently inferior, and they were called helots.

Plutarch referred to an odd practice. On certain occasions, helots were compelled to get drunk in public. The idea was that this would instill repugnance towards drunkenness in Spartan youths. I don’t know about the success of the maneuver. Today, given the Krazy Kollegians on Kegs videos, I suspect that it might backfire.

In 19th century biology, helotism was “a form of symbiosis in which one organism makes use of another as if it were a slave, by causing it to function to its own advantage; used esp. of the relationship of the fungus and alga in a lichen by those who regard it as neither mutualism nor parasitism.” [Oxford English Dictionary]

SIDEBAR: helots

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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