Oedipus Rex Vocabulary

Instructor: Melissa Rohen

Melissa has taught college English and has a master's degree in English and Composition.

In this lesson, we will look at some vocabulary used in Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex. Because the play is over two thousand years old, it can be challenging. However, by defining some of the uncommon words used, we can still enjoy the story.

Oedipus Rex: A (Very) Brief Summary

Oedipus Rex, a play written around 430 BCE by Sophocles, is a unique story about a King trying to save the city of Thebes. In order to do that, Oedipus has to find out who killed the previous king. Interestingly, Oedipus' wife had been married to the former king before he died. In the course of his investigation, Oedipus discovers that his wife is his mother, the dead king had been his father, and he, Oedipus, had killed him years before. Once he realizes the truth, Oedipus gouges out his eyes and leaves his beloved city. It is a roller-coaster of a story, but even when read in translation from the original ancient Greek, it can be challenging because of the English vocabulary that is used. For this lesson, we will refer to the F. Storr translation of the play.

Let's take a look at some of those words, what they mean, and how we can use them today.

Oedipus Rex: Vocabulary

Venerable

'Ho! Aged sire, whose venerable locks/Proclaim thee spokesman of this company…'

Venerable means respected because of age. In this example, Oedipus is speaking to a priest he picks out of the crowd due to his white hair. By using the word venerable, he is essentially saying 'Your opinion is important because you are old and wise.'

Today, we might refer to an aged teacher approaching retirement as venerable.

Welter

'...can no more lift her head/Foundered beneath a weltering surge of blood…'

To welter means to toss around or roil uncontrollably. Here, that venerable priest is comparing the troubles in Thebes to those of a ship sinking below a roiling sea of blood.

Think of the waves on a lake or the ocean during a bad storm: their chaotic movement can be said to be weltering.

Beseech

'All we thy votaries beseech thee, find/Some succor…'

Beseech means to beg for, or urgently request, something. Here, the priest is begging Oedipus to find some help, some relief for the troubled city.

Today, a child might beseech her parents for a new toy.

Sluggard

'Therefore ye rouse no sluggard from day-dreams…'

A sluggard is a lazy person: someone who is routinely idle. Here, Oedipus is saying that he is not such a person; he is here to help Thebes.

We might describe a teenager who spends all his days playing computer games as a sluggard.

Extirpate

'King Phoebus bids us straitly extirpate/A fell pollution that infests the land…'

Extirpate means to remove something, or even destroy it entirely. In this quote, Creon is alluding to the mystery of the unpunished murderer who killed the King of Thebes. That pollution - that mystery - needs to be removed entirely. In other words, the murderer needs to be brought to justice.

Dandelions need to be extirpated if you wish to have a weed-free lawn.

Taciturnity

'Will nothing loose thy tongue/Can nothing melt thee/Or shake thy dogged taciturnity?'

Taciturnity is the tendency to be quiet or not talk much. Here, Oedipus is frustrated at Tiresias' reluctance to speak frankly and clearly (in other words, he is annoyed that the prophet will not speak to him).

If we refer to someone as a 'man of few words,' we would be describing someone who is taciturn.

Petulance

'This taunt, it well may be, was blurted out/In petulance, not spoken advisedly.'

Petulance is an abrupt feeling of annoyance or irritableness. Here, the Chorus is referring to the insult Oedipus hurled at Creon, saying that it was, perhaps, said out of irritableness.

A child might respond with petulance when told he can't have a second bowl of ice cream.

Roisterer

'A roisterer at some banquet, flown with wine,/Shouted 'Thou art not true son of thy sire.'

A roisterer is a merrymaker, a reveler, or an energetic party-goer. In this quote, Oedipus is describing an especially loud and intoxicated guest at a party who shouted insults at him.

Guests at a Mardi Gras event, or party-goers on New Year's Eve, could be referred to as roisterers.

Mitigate

'Strange counsel, friend! I know thou meanst me well,/And yet would'st mitigate and blunt my zeal.''

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