Home

Will's word of the week: gargarach

In the spirit of April Fools’ Day, here is a word that I propose should be added to our daily lexicon, and its roots as I imagine them.

People make mistakes, for erring is human, and, yes, gaffes are a part of life.

But a “gargarach” (pronounced “gargar-ak”) is something else entirely, a blunder on a colossal scale. I must thank my dear friend Daniel Blue, a fellow aspiring academic currently in Tel Aviv, for his inspirational suggestion.

As defined by the Oxford Americanized Dictionary, or OAD, “gargarach” means “to fail, to succumb to failure,” or, “to misjudge.” But that minimal definition doesn’t quite tell the whole sad story.

Indeed, it has a storied-if-bloody history that stretches back to the Persian Wars of the 5th century B.C. As Herodotus records in his Histories, the Persian general Garga was charged by the emperor Xerxes with invading and subjugating the plucky Greek city-states of the defiant Peloponnesian League.

Garga, also known by his cheery nom de guerre, “the Grim,” was an accomplished general, and had fought in many wars on the Persian frontier for Xerxes’ father, Darius I. He was given an army composed of all the empire’s subject peoples — a vast assemblage half a million strong — and set out to march in inevitable triumph toward Greece.

But Garga didn’t count on the Greeks’ courageous cunning. Taking the northern overland route through and over the present-day Bosporus in modern-day Turkey, his hordes advanced ever closer toward Greece.

It was then that Garga, well, messed up.

At Thessaloniki, a city-state (or polis) in Macedonia, or northeastern Greece, the local leaders invited the Persian general and his staff to feast in their city in a show of collective, apparently willing, obeisance. Garga ordered his massive army to camp around Thessaloniki, and he, believing that these Greeks, at least, were reasonable (especially in acting so proactively hospitable), entered the city in triumph.

At the feast laid before him, Garga gullibly succumbed to his inner glutton and stuffed himself silly, along with his commanders. He ate so much that he fell asleep, trusting, perhaps a bit too much, in his new Greek friends. His army, too — supplied generously with feasting material by the Thessalonikians — partied rather hardy, and got smashed on rich wine.

Back in the city, Garga slept soundly, that is, until the Greeks chopped off his head. They then proceeded to signal their compatriots in the countryside, led by the Spartan general-king Leonidas, to swiftly assault the now-sodden Persian army outside their walls. The surprise was so great, and Garga’s death so disruptive to the top-down Persian command structure, that only a handful of survivor managed to flee to tell Xerxes of Garga’s fate.

Garga’s gaffe was thenceforward known as a “the Garga-rach,” or, broadly translated, the “dumbness of Garga,” and entered the Greek lexicon as a synonym for failure on a truly epic scale. The Romans picked it up and passed it down to us, with Shakespeare, as usual, being the first to use it in English, in his grand tragicomedy, The Perils of Persia, Or, the Gargarach, written and performed in London’s Globe Theatre around 1605. The line in question, the OAD records, can be found in act two, scene seventeen of the play, “I say, and proclaim to thee, Lysander, that the most hideous and grotesteque Garga, loathed and feared of all the Persians fierce, a ‘Gargarach’ hath he committed today, truly.” By the end of the 18th century, the word, still a proper noun, also took on a secondary meaning, as in, “to misjudge [a situation].”

Eventually, the capital “g” was dropped, even if the word also dropped out of common usage after the American War for Independence (known in Britain as “George’s Gargarach”), until it was resurrected recently by pop-music singer Lady Gaga.

I hope none of us ever makes a “Gargarach,” and is content with run-of-the-mill, non-extraordinary slip-ups, such as failing to match one’s soaks, getting a parking ticket or forgetting a minor homework assignment. Basically, whatever you do, don’t be like Garga. You might lose your head.

If you have any (actual) word ideas, questions or etymological inquiries for next time (for suggestions are always most welcome), please send them to me at opinion@dailyuw.com, and, until then, take care.

Reach columnist Will Mari at opinion@dailyuw.com.

Please read our Comment policy.