Phemes Infamous Brood

"We make a space inside ourselves so that being can speak."

〰 Martin Heidegger 〰


In last week’s wordcast we met Pheme, the daimona of fame and rumour in Greek mythology. In everyday language, the Greek word pheme simply means ‘speech’. It is fairly alive and familiar in the English words blasphemy and euphemism. Less so in the linguistic term pheme itself (= word as a grammatical unit).

Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers held the daimona (Pheme / Fama) responsible for anything related to the spreading of stories via spoken words. This includes primarily rumour and gossip.

The lines between glorification and defamation have a tendency to blur. As a consequence, anyone or anything crowned with the laurels of fame can be knocked off their fragile pedestal with the swoop of some badmouthed counterpropaganda.

Rumour might be one of the daughters of Pheme, rather than her equal. She entered many European languages via Latin and survived in the form of rumor in Catalan, English, Galician, Maltese, Portuguese, Spanish, to name a few.

In German, Rumor used to be a common word in the sense of noise, tumult, commotion, brouhaha, or any kind of noisy dispute. It is alive to this day in the verb rumoren (= rumble, grumble)

The two different meanings, hearsay and rumbling or noisy speech tie in with the spectrum of uses of rumor in its native Latin: noise, clamor; common talk, hearsay, gossip.

Another Latin word, closely related to rumor, is rumen (= throat; first stomach of a ruminant). This is the source of the English verb ruminate with its double meaning of ‘chewing cud’ and ‘mentally chewing something over’.

In 1778, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote in one of his essays, “The idea of a moral metamorphosis of man, only possible through supernatural influences, may have already rumoured in the heads of the believers for a long time.”

The use of rumour as a verb in this figurative sense attests to the fact that the word was once a familiar term to convey mental digestion of information.


Left to its own devices, a rumour tends to develop as gossip. This pheme was already in use in the English language around 1300, about a century before its Latin synonym landed on the British Isles. However, it carried a somewhat different meaning.

Gossip is related to the Old Norse guðsifja and Old Saxon guþziff 〰 a composition of God + sibb (= kinship, relationship). In Old English, gossip was used in the same sense as sponsor or godparent.

Because godparents usually get together with the clan to celebrate the birth of a child, and because the event is associated with a lot of idle talk about all kinds of family affairs 〰 including chitchat about other relations and neighbours, and who did what, when and with whom 〰 gossip became entangled with rumour. And the definition stuck.


When rumour and gossip are directed and channelled with a specific agenda, they become something we now call propaganda.
This word is a composition of Latin pro (= for, towards) + pangere (= fasten, agree).

Propaganda is closely related to propagation 〰 the intentional act of causing living creatures to reproduce.

The concept of propaganda was born and bred by Pope Gregory XV in the early 17th century to promote Catholic missionary activities. In 1622 he established the Congregatio de propaganda fide (= Congregation for propagating the faith) in Rome, which provided training for priests to evangelise the heathens overseas.

Interesting in this context is also the connection with the word pagan (from the same root pangere). Now commonly used in the sense of ‘non-Christian’, the original Roman paganus referred to a ‘civilian' in the sense of ' incompetent soldier ’. Since the early Christians saw themselves as 'soldiers of Christ’, pagans were obviously not suitable as recruits for the job.

If etymological dictionaries tell us that ‘the political (or military) association with propaganda was established around the beginning of World War I. The word was originally neutral, in the sense of spreading information to promote a political point of view, etc.’ 〰 this is not entirely accurate.

When Pope Gregory XV founded his ‘Congregation for Faith Propaganda’ in 1622, he must have had the recruitment of ‘soldiers of Christ’ on his mind. Needless to say, the closely knit relationship between church and politics in those days is a well known historic fact.

The contemporary negative flavour of manipulating an audience to further a political agenda or economic interests allegedly developed in the 20th century.

The verb pangere is literally the act of making a pact. So if we buy into someone's propaganda, we are effectively making a pact to support a certain cause.


The English word hearsay developed in the mid 16th century. This composition of hear + say is also known in Dutch, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and some Roman languages.

Hear is the contemporary version of the old Saxon word hyran and describes accoustic perception.

Say comes from the Saxon seggyan and represents oral expression.

In Anthropocene language, hearsay has a long history as a synonym for rumour, gossip, chitchat, the spreading of news or secrets through the grapevine.

The interesting thing about hearsay is that the word itself illustrates the process of gossipping. Hearsay clearly repeats the exact same pattern that gave her ancestor, the daimona Pheme a bad reputation in Ancient Greece.

When we engage in hearsay, we simply echo a certain narrative. Or at least we believe we do. (We might not be aware of how much of our own stuff we add to the story).

Anyway, here is the purely physical process:

Phase one – spoken words hit the eardrums and enter the head of the listener.
Phase two – Words are pushed through the voicebox and tumble over tongue and through teeth out of the mouth.

This happens so fast, it almost feels like one movement. But between the ears and the complex voicing apparatus there is a whole architecture called the skull.

If we gaze at the skull through the lens of Ovid's metamorphoses, it begins to look like Pheme's palace. Every human skull a private tower of ore with a thousand windows.

The ears are two of the biggest windows in this human brain-box-castle. When words enter this space through the ears, they don't immediately tumble out of the mouth automatically – as the word hearsay suggests. We are equipped with an intricate network of channels and neural connections and clever transfer mechanisms etc. between tympanic cavities and mouth.

To either side of the structure, above each auricle, we can find a temple, suggesting a space for contemplation. This clever design gives an opportunity to get away from the skullduggery of mindless rumour, gossipping, and propaganda.

Taking advantage of this space, we can create a pause between 'hear' and 'say'. Like the moment of stillness between inbreath and outbreath.

Within this private intertemporal area we can stretch time. We can receive incoming messages, listen, discern, make sense of them and decide what to say 〰 if anything at all.

We can take charge of our thoughts and words. We are free to choose whether to make a pact with some political, commercial, or any other agenda, or propagate loyalty to ourselves.
To support this adventure, the wildwordwoods has procreated a dedicated Word⚘Fairygodmother. Her name is Hearken⚘Praxi.

Hearken is an old English word for listening attentively. It can also be an internal listening to call back a memory.

Hearken puts an emphasis on listening with respect and attention 〰 in contrast to hearing, which focusses on the acoustic sense per se, or the ability to perceive sound at all. In other words, the original meaning of hear refers to the auditory faculty, while hearken is a more profound ability, combining the purely sensory with the mental faculties.

Hearken enables us to tune into silence. Hearken is a golden key. It opens the door to deep listening.

Praxi is the Greek word for practice, or action. And actions speak louder than words, as we all know.

Practicing hearken, enables us to plunge the depths of the contemplative inner space. From within that depth our own truth and wisdom make themselves heard.
Written by VeronikaB
Author's Note
This wordcast  was first published on
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