‘Ostracism’ comes from an ancient Greek practice of formally voting people into exile. The story goes like this …
Back around 400 B.C., the city of Athens instituted a strange kind of annual ‘election’:
- Everyone would get together in the marketplace and vote one person the equivalent of ‘Athens’ most hated‘.
- If you were the ‘winner’ of this election, then you had to leave and go into exile for ten years—not for any crime, but just because people didn’t like you. Ouch!
Now, Athenians didn’t have a lot of paper, or electronic voting machines, so for ballots they just used pieces of broken pots (‘potsherds’). The word for potsherd was the same as the word for oyster-shell (because they look so similar) and this was: ostrakon.
Since they did it using ostrakons, the Greeks came to call the process ‘ostrakonizing’ (ostrakizein, in ancient Greek). And thus it is from ostrakon that our modern words ostracize, ostracism (as well as oyster) have evolved.
Five quick facts about ancient ostracisms
- Ostracism was obviously pretty harsh, but it was actually designed to make the city more peaceful; before that, a lot of disputes had ended in plain old killing.
- The practice didn’t actually last all that long in Athens: the first Athenian formal ostracism was in 487B.C., and the last in 417. Other Greek cities had similar practices though, sometimes using leaves for ballots (don’t ‘leave’ me!).
- While you were banished, you still maintained ownership of your house, and you could even collect rent.
- Once your ten years were up, you came back with full civil rights—though some poor guys then managed to get ostracised a second time, too!
- Because ostrakons were made of clay, archaeologists have found quite a lot of these ostrakon ballots—and many of them turn out to have hateful little comments added. For example, one reads: ‘Themistocles, son of Neocles, asshole‘. Way to enter history, dude!
Older connections: ostrakon – oyster – osteopath
The ost in ostrakon comes from the ancient Proto-Indo-European language: it was once a word for bone.
This same root, via a separate path, became Latin osseous (bony, of the bone), which is where we get all those osseo– and osteo– words in English for things related to bones.
- Gallucci, Ralph. “Ostracism.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. : Oxford University Press, 2010. Oxford Reference. 2010.
- Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy” The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece Sara Forsdyke, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2005 Chapter 4, pp. 146ff.
- “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
- “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
- Online Etymology Dictionary
Ostraca image by Tilemahos Efthimiadis from Athens, Greece [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Other images for this post are original to DexterousTongue.