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As I mentioned in a previous question, I've been taught that ancient authors associated the name Ἀχιλλεύς (and its many variations) with ἄχος ("pain") and λαός ("people"). After all, the Iliad is the story of Achilles bringing a lot of pain to his people, as established in the very first lines.

However, the etymologies proposed by the ancients were often entirely wrong. Plato's Cratylus, for example, is full of speculations that modern etymologists with a knowledge of Indo-European consider fanciful at best.

Does "Achilles" actually come from ἄχος and λαός? Or is this merely a folk etymology, and the name comes from somewhere else entirely?

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    On my phone right now but it's definitely still considered as a possibility today -- Nagy argues for it if memory serves -- but there's no consensus on the name's etymology.
    – TKR
    May 7, 2023 at 3:05

3 Answers 3

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Nagy 1994 argues that, whether or not the name goes back to ἄχος and λαός in Proto-Indo-European, it was certainly understood that way in Homeric times. He claims that, whether this is a derivation or a reanalysis, it must have happened when "Caland compounds" were still productive: Ἀχι-λαϝος "his people have pain" follows the same template as κυδι-ανειρα "its men have glory" and Οἰδι-ποδης "his feet have swelling", which only appears in fossils by the time of the earliest Greek writing. So even if it's a reanalysis, it's a reanalysis that happened well before Homer.

He also suggests that names like Πρωτεσι-λαος, Χαιρεσι-λαος, Πενθεσι-λεια show a later (Homeric) type of formation riffing off it, once the "Caland compound" stopped being productive. I'm still unclear, though, on what form the first components of these names are supposed to have—are they meant to be finite verbs?

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  • Presumably Penthesileia etc. are terpsimbrotos compounds; what exactly the first element of such compounds represents is a longstanding problem. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terpsimbrotos
    – TKR
    May 8, 2023 at 0:23
  • @TKR That would make a good answer to this question!
    – Draconis
    May 8, 2023 at 0:32
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Not an answer, but Beekes discusses it, as excerpted without comment. He considers it pre-Greek:

Excerpt from Beekes, part 1 Excerpt from Beekes, part 2

᾿Αχιλλεύς [m.] the son of Peleus and Thetis (Il.). <PG>

  • VAR Also ᾿Αχιλεύς (Il.).
  • DIAL Myc. a-ki-re-u, dat. a-ki-re-we.
  • DER ᾿Αχιλλήϊος (Hdt.), Att. ᾿Αχίλλειος (E.); also a plant.
  • ETYM The variation λλ ~ λ (like σσ ~ σ in ᾿Οδυσ(σ)εύς) is typical of Pre-Greek words, and probably points to a palatalized phoneme /lʸ/. Any metrical explanation of the origin of this interchange is vicious. I do not believe that the name is hypocoristic for an older compound, or that it belongs to ▶ἄχος 'pain'.
    Holland Glotta 71 (1993): 17-27 gives a new proposal for Achilles. He connects it again with ἄχος, though he admits that it does not mean 'fear' as in Germanic: although he translates it as 'grief' in some passages, in Greek it means 'distress'. He cites instances where Homer mentions the ἄχος of Achilles, but these can easily be understood as folk-etymological explanations of the name. Holland explains the geminate as hypocoristic, and then assumes an element -ιλο- for which he cites ὀργίλος 'inclined to anger', but here without any meaning; it contradicts his interpretation of the λ as a remnant of λαός 'army', for which there is no evidence. The most serious mistake is that he does not accept the evidence of the Mycenaean, where we find a-ki-re-u = ᾿Αχιλλεύς. Holland admits (19) that the word enjoyed a certain popularity, and that "the name was not invented for the Homeric hero". It shows that the name existed in this form centuries before Homer. The name can easily be understood as Pre-Greek: note the suffix -ευς, and the variation between geminate and simple consonant (Fur.: 387). Holland sweeps this explanation away as "nebulous pre-Greek" (17), but this is no argument. In doing this, he takes us back to the period before we knew Mycenaean, and his interpretation must be fundamentally rejected. Achilles is clearly a hero taken over from other stories. The meaning of the name remains unknown, but this is unimportant.
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If the etymology of λαίλασ ("ὁ μὴ ἐκ γένους τύραννος, Cyr., Suid.; Lydian acc. to Hsch.", LSJ) is correct to compare λαός, which may be debatable, the title could be read accordingly, which should be fairly convincing, I think, in face of the rhyme with βᾰσῐλεύς, except that's uncertain as well. This would leave two questions that I won't be able to answer, a) namely the nationality of Achilles or at least the provenience of the myth, and b) the meaning of the first argument.

In addition, it is notable that wanax as an earlier synonym is hotly debated. In general this is a good idea, follow the money, except that different ideas of rule have to be considered. So while tyrant may have continued where λαίλασ broke of, this would suggest a warrior king. So, as unlikely as it might be, it's an important problem space to consider.

As for

a) if it belongs to the same stratum as basileus, it may indicates Egyptian. Basileus is like behemoth speculatively maybe prefixed with an Afroasiatic determiner, which is particularly pertinent with plural of honor. There is no historic framework to date it that I'm aware of, but there are records of placenames to show this at some later stage. Within the Trojan War setting.

b) Achaean sounds to me like the most likely match for the first argument. The meaning is clear enough, though the etymology is not. This is compatible with ἄχος to the extent that for example res public, blodthing and Reichstag and so on have bleached semantics, so criticism such as Beekes' towards a finer distinction requires to show that "distress" or "pain" is a secondary development, ie. "matter" in "what's the matter with you".

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    I feel there's a glimmer of merit in the suggestion that 1. Ἀχιλλεύς is a non-Greek name and 2. the first element is related to Achaea (I'd look to Hittite Ahhiyā rather than anything in Greek, especially since you also seem to want to connect λαίλας, which Hesychius claims is Lydian, and Ἀχαΐα has too many syllables), but as usual your impenetrable personal style makes it unnecessarily difficult to extract your argument from your answer. The connection to Egyptian is nonsensical in every detail.
    – Cairnarvon
    May 29, 2023 at 22:15
  • Yes. A few grave typos commited before I was done.
    – vectory
    May 29, 2023 at 22:43

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