Is it true that the word ‘tragedy’ originally meant ‘goat-song’?
It is absolutely true. Many theories have been offered to explain it. One is that Greek tragedies were known as goat-songs because the prize in Athenian play competitions was a live goat. The contests were part of worship to Dionysus, involving chants and dances in his honour. The Romans knew Dionysus later as Bacchus, god of all things ‘bacchanalian’: in other words he freed people from their normal self through madness, wine, and ecstasy.
Sometimes the goat would be sacrificed, and a goat lament sung as the sacrifice was made. Hence the goat-song became intertwined with the Greek plays.
But by far my favourite suggestion is one that was offered in the Guardian’s celebrated Notes & Queries section. In answer to why the word tragedy comes from a word for goat-song, a Mr Marcus Roome of Clapton in London wrote simply: ‘Have you ever heard a goat sing?’.
An extract from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.