It’s all Greek to them

One of our studio spotted a howler on the behalf of his alma mater. Cambridge University classics faculty has just opened a shiny extension building. In keeping with their studies, the doors have been decorated with a quotation in ancient Greek.

Ancient Greek inscription on door

The quote is Aristotle, meaning “All men by nature desire to know”. Unfortunately whoever was responsible for lettering the door did not know and didn’t consult anyone expert in Greek typesetting either. So the door ended up engraved with an English “s” instead of the Greek sigma. As Professor of Classics Mary Beard points out in her blog, the ‘S” of “Phusei” (by nature) is incorrect.

The correct version would read “ΦYΣEI”. So the really intriguing question is how did the mistake happen, given that some knowledge of Greek would be needed to know that “Σ” is an “S” when romanized? Personally I suspect the evil hand of font substitution may have been at work. No doubt with the benefit of hindsight a PDF template for the signwriter would have saved some red faces.

Amusingly the press haven’t been immune from the odd blunder in their reporting of this either. The Daily Mail originally headlined the story as a mistake in the Latin spelling. The Mail has found its mistake much easier to fix, although the sharp eyed will notice it lingers on in the web address.

One Reply to “It’s all Greek to them”

  1. This observation would be rather astute and humorous if it weren’t for the fact that “another popular form for the large character Σ in antiquity” looked strikingly like a Latin S (cf. Buth, Randall. Living Koiné Greek, Part One: Ἡ Ἑλληνικὴ Σχολή. 2nd ed. Jerusalem: Biblical Language Center, 2008. p. 144).

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