Tardis Next post: A Trojan Horse in the Tardis: it’s all an allusion…

Swaggering parade Previous Post: Swaggering bullies, strutting models, and parading bands

Tragedy comes from a word meaning 'goat song'.

Did ‘tragedy’ originally mean ‘goat song’?

It is absolutely true that the word ‘tragedy’ has roots in a Greek word meaning ‘goat-song’. 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.

Others believe that in the plays themselves men and women would wear goat-costumes to dress up as satyrs—half-goat beings that worshipped and surrounded Dionysus in his revelry.

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 adapted from What Made the Crocodile Cry? by Susie Dent.
In the book What Made the Crocodile Cry?, Susie Dent draws on her popular television segment on the curiosities of English to tackle fascinating puzzles.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.