Word of the Day / Anecdota

Today it means a short, amusing story. To Emperor Justinian's reputation, it meant something altogether darker.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word “anecdota” means exactly the same thing as in English - anecdote. A short interesting story about something or someone.

You might think it's less than a stellar candidate for a Word of the Day, but its etymology is a great anecdote. And, it has its origin in a 7th century “Israeli.”

Procopius was born in Caesarea, though his career had him relocate to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire and modern-day Istanbul, where he became court historian to Justinian the Great (the Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565).

In fact, Procopius is probably the reason we call Justinian "great" in the first place, as his histories are pretty much the only window through which we can view that emperor’s reign.

As expected from an historian whose livelihood is dependant on the crown, Procopius' histories shone a very positive light on Justinian. But through the ages, it was rumored that Procopius had written another history called “Anecdota,” Greek for unpublished (an = un + ecdotos = published) that had been lost. This unpublished history was supposed to have painted a very different image.

Come the year 1623, a Vatican librarian cataloging the Holy See’s vast collection of ancient manuscripts actually found a copy of the “Anecdota” and it was published that same year. This version of Justinian's reign was rife with scandals including incest, bestiality, and lechery. Far from being a beacon unto the ages, the emperor himself was characterized rather otherwise:

“This Emperor, then, was deceitful, devious, false, hypocritical, two-faced, cruel, skilled in dissembling his thought, never moved to tears by either joy or pain, though he could summon them artfully at will when the occasion demanded, a liar always, not only offhand, but in writing, and when he swore sacred oaths to his subjects in their very hearing.”

By 1676, the word “anecdote” had entered English in the context of exposing dark secrets. Over the years its intent was sublimated into its meaning today, that is, as Merriam-Webster puts it: “a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident”.

It is with this meaning that the word entered Hebrew in 1861, when A. Luria published an article titled “Ludwig XI and Atstargolo” with the subheading “A nice anecdota for education.” The word was well accepted despite its foreignness and is commonly used today.

Shoshana Kordova is on leave. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.

The Emperor Justinian, a mosaic in the San Vitale basilica, Ravenna.Credit: The Yorck Project

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