προσκυνεω – An Anecdotal Etymology

I was reminiscing with a friend about a funny episode from a Greek class I took a couple years ago, and I think it bears repeating, just to show what a smart-ass I can be.

We were sight-reading in John 4 and as I was reading v. 24 I said something like, “God is spirit, and those that blow kisses at him must blow kisses at him in spirit and in truth.” My Greek professor (a papyrologist) straightened up and asked why I translated it that way. He was used to me being comically literal in my translations (“and the Jesus said him-ward,” etc.), but this evidently caught him off guard. I explained that one of the primary etymologies of the word comes from προς and κυνεω, “to kiss.” Thus, the word originally signified “kissing toward.”

He immediately averred that I was mistaken. The word, I opined, was probably derived in large part from the Greek and Persian practice of bowing, kissing one’s hand, and gesturing toward a social superior, as represented in the accompanying photo. Reluctance regarding Alexander the Great’s demand that he be addressed in this manner seems to show awareness of the significance of the gesture, and it doesn’t seem to be a common word prior to this.

Of course, this may or may not be an accurate origin of the word, and the etymology really has little to do with the word’s actual usage, but my professor immediately stood up and darted out of the room. We stared at each other for a minute or two and he suddenly bounded back in the room with his Great Scott (he was a jovial character who wore nothing but bowties and shouted χαιρετε! every time he walked in the room). He chuckled to himself as he flipped to προσκυνεω, and then gasped in horror as he read an etymology similar to my own. I was relieved to have been exonerated this once (I was usually wrong in his class), and I kept my mouth shut for another two weeks. Ah, memories.


2 responses to “προσκυνεω – An Anecdotal Etymology

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