A person skilled in dinner-table conversation.
From the Greek deipnon (meal) and sophistai (learned men).
On an over-simplified spectrum of genres, writing varies between wild escapism (sci-fi, fantasy, The Secret – Rhonda Byrne’s handy guide to how you can escape a natural disaster by thinking positively) and gritty realism (Balzac’s Comédie humaine, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, Cheryl Cole’s Cheryl: My Story). If this post were a work of wild escapism, I could begin by saying that — an hour or so from now — I’ll be hosting my first dinner party since arriving in Norway; if this post were a work of gritty realism, I could begin by saying that I’ll be entertaining two people who speak a different language by shoving some fajitas in the microwave and lighting a couple of candles to keep the electricity bill down. Somewhere between the two extremes lies the truth, and the truth is something most writers are entitled to withhold.
Still, it would be true enough to say that today’s word is topical. Anyone who has been to any sort of extended social gathering will have observed that some people seem to possess an innate ability to dominate the conversation, whereas others stutter out a single anecdote (‘Did I ever tell you about the time when I was alone in the house and I thought I heard the phone ringing, so I went downstairs to answer it and then it turned out it wasn’t ringing at all?’) and retire into the background. The person with the ability to command attention from both sides of the table, to turn any meal into an impromptu stand-up performance, can (but, at a typical gathering, almost certainly wouldn’t) be described as a deipnosophist.
The Ancient Greek sophos (learned, wise) lingers on in an eclectic group of English words: sophistication, sophistry, philosophy… and, of course, deipnosophist, which is simply a combination of the Greek root words for meal and wisdom. This erudite compound was introduced by Athenaeus of Naucratis, a second-century writer best remembered for the fifteen-volume Deipnosophistae. The Deipnosophistae, purportedly an account of a banquet at the house of a wealthy patron of the arts, survives in what, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, is close to its entirety today, and contains the only known references to a number of classical Greek authors. It also contains what has to be one of the most one-sided conversations in history: ‘Athenaeus’ talks at his friend Timocrates (who, bewilderingly, remains his friend even in the fifteenth volume) for well over a thousand pages.
In the course of those thousand pages, Athenaeus advances the theory that the ideal dinner-table conversation should cover every conceivable topic, from music and sport to the sexual preferences of the inhabitants of Britain: ‘Celts, although they have very beautiful women, prefer boys.’ And, as of this week, will legally be allowed to marry them.
The fate of ‘deipnosophist’ has much in common with the fate of the Deipnosophistae. The book survives, but is rarely read; the word survives, but is rarely employed. Its use is restricted mainly to experimental writing (Ellis Sharp in The Bloating of Nellcock: ‘At the age of six his future as a deipnosophist seemed certain. Guzzling filched apples he loved to prattle. Hogging the pie he invariably piped up and rattled on’), or to writing that wants you to know that it knows what it’s talking about (Richard Ford’s 1845 Hand-book for Travellers in Spain: ‘Spanish cookery, a… subject which is well worth the inquiry of any antiquarian deipnosophist.’).
And yet, as long as there are deipnosophists to dazzle at dates and dinners, the word has to live on…
(And if you’re wondering why this finishes in such a hurry, it’s because I really do have my own mini-dinner party to throw.)