It’s All Greek to Me
Welcome back to WOTW following a little summer sabbatical. I trust you are all enjoying the weather!
Profiling a group of wrecks recently, I spotted one called the Svodohy, said to be a Greek brig lost off Lundy in 1883. The name didn’t seem at all Greek to me, but was reported as such in the Board of Trade Casualty Returns (the Victorian annual statistics for shipwrecks). I smelt a rat and called up 19th Century British Newspapers Online (most local libraries subscribe, a hugely useful resource).
Contemporary newspapers revealed various versions of her name, together with equally various versions of her home port, and likewise the master’s name varied from the BOT report. The one thing that they all said, however, was that she was Greek. Usually when this sort of thing happens, it’s a sure sign that foreign lettering, whether on the ship’s side, or as entered by the master in official records, hasn’t been read properly, in this case the Greek alphabet. The most convincing version came from her departure port at Cardiff where they would surely have had access to the port records: hence this report called her Zoodochos (Pigi). I realised that in Greek letters it must have read, probably all in lower case, ζωoδοχος; most likely probably if painted cursively it bore an even closer resemblance to Svodohy, with, for example, the unfamiliar final letter ‘s’ looking like a loose ‘y’. Zoodochos Pigi is one of the epithets of the Theotokos (Mother of God) in Greek Orthodoxy, so this seems on the right track, as, of course, saints’ names have historically always been very popular for ships.
There is a similar case with a 1946 Greek vessel charted as the OHPA, and mysteriously untraced, which, of course, was easily traced once Greek ΘΗΡΑ was transliterated as Thira, unlocking access to further references in the contemporary press..
I find both errors slightly odd during a period when far more people learnt Greek at school than they do now, even if they promptly forgot it as soon as they left . . . !
Such access to a Classical education had its effects on ship names at an earlier date in England. An 1808 wreck rejoiced in the pseudo-learned Greek name of Chrononhotonthologos.
In fact, it is a name from the English-speaking world, inspired by ‘the most tragical tragedy that ever was tragediz’d’ by Henry Carey in 1734, republished as one of ‘the most esteemed farces on the English stage’ in 1786. It was performed as far afield as Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1818, so the ship operated during the currency of the play. Why the owner named his ship thus is anyone’s guess, and there’s probably a very good story here we know nothing about.
At least it was certainly more distinctive than your average Betsey and probably jumped off the page in arrivals and departures lists, which was always good news for people looking for ‘when their ship came in’.