Q I’ve always been a little haunted by the story of King Tantalus. I know that it’s from his name that we get the word “tantalize,” but are there any other words that have the same origin? – M.M., St. Paul, Minn.
A: The story of poor King Tantalus does leave quite an impression. Here’s a quick synopsis for readers who are unfamiliar with it.
In Greco-Roman mythology, Tantalus was the king of Phrygia and an intimate friend of the gods who sometimes dined at their table. Tantalus fell out of favor, to put it mildly, either by repeating the gods’ secrets on earth or, according to another version of the myth, by killing his son and serving him to the gods. Whatever Tantalus’ crime, his punishment in the underworld was to forever stand chin-deep in the lake Tartarus, the water of which would recede whenever he tried to drink; above him were branches of fruit that swung out of reach whenever he tried to pick from them. Hence the word “tantalize,” meaning “to tease or torment by or as if by presenting something desirable to the view but continually keeping it out of reach.”
The only other English word that comes from “Tantalus” is “tantalum,” the name of a metallic element that was named after Tantalus because its inability to absorb acid suggested the king’s inability to drink.
The name of the lake in which Tantalus was doomed to stand has given us the word “Tartarean,” meaning “of, relating to, or resembling Tartarus, infernal,” and, more surprisingly, “turtle,” from the Mithraic and early Christian association of the turtle with infernal forces.
This column was prepared by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition.
Readers may send questions to Merriam-Webster’s Wordwatch, P.O. Box 281, 47 Federal St., Springfield, MA 01102.