February 10, 2007


protean: adj. Usage: sometimes capitalized

• Etymology: Proteus, legendary sea god in the service of Neptune who had the power of assuming different shapes (from Latin, from Greek Promacrteus) + English -an

1 : characteristic of or resembling Proteus : capable of change : exceedingly variable

2 : readily assuming different shapes or forms

3 : capable of acting many different roles

4 : displaying great diversity : possessed of infinite variety

Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (10 Feb. 2007).

A Summary of the Confrontation Between
Proteus and Agamemnon in Homer's The Odyssey

Menelaus had almost as much trouble getting home from Troy as Odysseus did. Menelaus was king of Sparta, brother of Agamemnon, and husband of that Helen whose elopement with Paris of Troy led to the Trojan War. His wanderings on the way back to Sparta lasted eight years. Once, detained for twenty days by want of wind on the island of Pharos, and running short of provisions, he was advised by a nymph that the sea-god Proteus, if forced, could tell him how to reach home. Menelaus found the god asleep, seized him, and held on despite Proteus's successive transformations into a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a boar, water, and a tree. (I would like to know how he managed to hold on to the water.) Proteus eventually provided the necessary instructions. Anything exceedingly variable or readily assuming many shapes--an amobea, for instance, or, in a different sense, an actor--is protean (41).
--Espy, Willard R. O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun: An Etymology of Words That Once were Names. New York: Clarkson N. Potter 1978.

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