What's in a Word | All Blogs

Behind the mask

By Debra Dobbins

Rat is using the word “persona” in its literary sense, meaning the character in a drama or novel. In its psychological sense, the word means “the outer personality or facade presented to others by an individual,” according to Webster’s. (We all have our public personas, but that’s a topic for another day.)

James Joyce, by the way, is the famous Irish writer best known for Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

“Persona” comes from a Latin word that meant mask, according to Webster’s. Webster’s also lists “persona grata,” a phrase that I think ties in to the current plight and flights of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, now reportedly camped out in the transit area of Moscow’s airport. Russian authorities say he has not officially entered their county and is therefore free to leave whenever he wishes.

That gives him a unique spin on the definition of “persona grata,” which is someone who is acceptable or welcomed. It generally is applied to foreign diplomats posted in a country. If a diplomat does something criminal and/or unsavory, however, he or she runs the risk of being deemed “persona non grata,” or an unwelcomed person.

“In non-diplomatic usage, referring to someone as persona non grata is to say that he or she is ostracized. Such a person is for all intents and purposes culturally shunned, so as to be figuratively nonexistent,” according to Wikipedia.

The United States is calling on Russia to shun Snowden and extradite him to his homeland to face charges. The world still knows relatively little about the man behind the headlines. Only after Snowden’s character is better fleshed out will he eventually be considered a protagonist or an antagonist in this real-life drama.

James Joyce, 1915
Theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy. mosaic,
Roman artwork, second century AD, Capitoline Museum in Rome

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia


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