Greek, Songwriting

Champagne and Catharsis

“Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends” -Tom Waits

In Greek, the word for song is Τραγούδι (tra-GOO-thee). It’s a sham friend of the English word tragedy, which means they sound alike but don’t share the same meaning.  This happens a lot between Greek and English.  An example is the word for yes in Greek, which is “Ναι” and has all the nasal negation of “nay” or “no” and it seems every word for no in European languages; non, nein, niet?

Have you listened to some Greek songs? They are emotive, dramatic and lyrically serious downers way over yonder in the minor key.  All things Elliot Smith and Aimee Mann and outside of exceptions like Queens “Best Friend” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” pretty much every other song in the English language songbook.   

Tραγούδι adds a little heft and veritas to the word “song” notable for its germanic pith, and which deserves some heft and veritas.  There are lots of rules for what makes a tragedy a tragedy but the short of it from well known authority Aristotle is that a tragedy needs catharsis.

Catharsis is another word which springs from Greek and is a real friend as the fates would have it.  The word for catharsis in Greek is κάθαρση (CATH-ar-see) Take away that “ess” sound from the word and you get Κάθαρη (KATH-ar-ee) which means “clean.”  So songs, or τραγούδια, could be about coming clean–about that moment of seeing things clearly, clarifying things.  They could also be about purging, purifying, expurgation, ablution, absolution and in one colorful translation of the verb καθαρίζω (cath-ar-EE-zoh), defecating.  And ideas like gloss, shine, sheen, shimmer, sparkle and lustration are all translations as well.

Lustration is a fun word.  It’s root is the latin word luster but why let that get in the way of the good old germanic lust hidden in that shine.

The turning point of catharsis useful to think about when writing songs. It’s a crux, or inflection point.  And it points to something that could be happening both to the characters and listeners before and after listening to a song.  That they come into the song in one state and leave changed–hopefully for the better.

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