What's in a Word | All Blogs


Ancient quest, ancient city

By Debra Dobbins


Those who enjoy Greek mythology will recognize the word “Argo” as the name of the ship built for Jason and his crew as they set off in search of the Golden Fleece. According to Wikipedia, the Greek word for Argo means “swift.”

English also has the word, “argosy,” which means a large merchant ship. It is a mistake, though, writes Isaac Asimov in Words from History, to think that this word stems from Argo. Instead, he writes, the word actually comes from an ancient name for Dubrovnik.

This stunningly beautiful walled city lies on the coast of the Adriatic Sea in what is now called Croatia. (When I visited, Dubrovnik was part of Yugoslavia.)

“The city was founded in the seventh century by Greeks,” Asimov notes. “The founders named the city Raguisum, and to the Italians across the Adriatic it was Ragusa.”

He adds that the city was “known particularly for its large merchants ships which were called ‘ragusea’ (‘ships of Ragusa’). In English, the first two letters were transposed and the word became ‘argosy.’”

The Argo (ca. 1500-1530), painting by Lorenzo Costa
Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Old Harbour at Dubrovnik
Courtesy of Wikipedia

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