Another “One Bites the Dust”

A curious idiom that shows up a number of times in both the Iliad and the Odyssey means literally “take the ground with one’s teeth”; figuratively, it means “die.”

The idiom bite the dust, or something like it, is found in a handful of modern European languages:

Dutch: in het zand/gras bijten ‘bite into the sand/grass’
French: mordre la poussière ‘bite the dust’
German: ins Graß beißen ‘bite into the grass’
Spanish: morder el polvo ‘bite the dust’
Swedish: bita i gräset ‘bite into the grass’

How intriguing to find basically the exact same collocation in three-thousand-year-old Greek! The recurring phrase is not properly a Homeric formula because it shows up under various guises, with altered components.

                                πολέες δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὸν ἑταῖροι
πρηνέες ἐν κονίῃσιν ὀδὰξ λαζοίατο γαῖαν.”
“[Hector’s] many companions, fallen face-down around him
in the dust, may seize the earth with their teeth.” (Il. 2.417–418)

Here the verb is λάζομαι ‘seize, grasp for oneself’ and the ‘earth’-word is γαῖα.

                                              “δύο δ᾽ ἀμφὶς ἕκαστον
φῶτες ὀδὰξ ἕλον οὖδας ἐμῷ ὑπὸ δουρὶ δαμέντες.”
“Around each [chariot], two
men took the ground with their teeth, conquered by my spear.” (Il. 11.748–749)

In this one—as is most common—the verb is ἑλεῖν (aor. of αἱρέω) ‘take, grasp.’ The noun is οὖδας.

οἱ μὲν ἔπειθ᾽ ἅμα πάντες ὀδὰξ ἕλον ἄσπετον οὖδας,
μνηστῆρες δ᾽ ἀνεχώρησαν μεγάροιο μυχόνδε
All of them at the same moment took the vast ground with their teeth,
and the suitors retreated to a far corner of the hall. (Od. 22.269–270)

ἄσπετον, which I have translated ‘vast,’ is a common epithet of οὖδας ‘ground’—together they make up a nice dactyl-spondee pair on which to end a line—and it is not an integral element of the idiom.

And then we have the peculiar little adverb ὀδάξ ‘with the teeth, toothwise,’ whose exact history is somewhat mysterious. It is obviously a member of the same class of body-part adverbs as γνύξ ‘with [bent] knee’ (cf. τὸ γόνυ ‘knee’), λάξ ‘with the foot/heel,’ πύξ ‘with the fist(s)’ (cf. πυγμή ‘fist’). A zero-grade root, *h3dn̥t-, seems likely, but what is the suffix? Cf. also verbs like ὀδακτάζω ‘bite, gnaw’; λακτίζω ‘kick with the heel.’

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