Language

One death is a goat song

Woke up yesterday to a sombre Paul Holmes breaking the news of the sudden death of singer Rob Guest.

It was quite a body blow to those of us who remember the eternally youthful Rob from ’70s pop shows.

It was one of those ‘I remember where I was when I heard’ moments.

Others in that category for me were the shock deaths of Norman Kirk (I was babysitting the neighbour’s kids in Woburn), Elvis Presley (driving along the Hutt Road), John Lennon (at home in Newtown), Princess Di (on the phone in Kent Terrace), Steve Irwin (at Christchurch airport) and Rod Donald (driving through the Paremata roundabout). 

Now perhaps the first word that leaps to mind at such times is tragedy.

But just be careful there.

Because to call any death a tragedy is to dice with a wholly inappropriate emotion, comedy.

You see, the word tragedy means ‘goat song’.

It’s from the Greek tragoidia.  (Tragos = ‘goat’. Oidia = ‘song’.)

Clear as muck? 

Well, it so happened ancient Greek plays were semi-religious affairs. And naturally, this meant a goat had to be sacrificed. (To the god of wine, of all people.)

Then the chorus would sing a song of sacrifice.

A ‘goat song’.

Some actors would act the goat too.  Or half the goat anyway. They’d dress up as satyrs. These were men from the waist up, and goats the rest of the way down.

For a reason that’s now lost in the mists of time, the main event took on the name of the curtain raiser.

And so, as we mourn New Zealand’s finest exponent of musical theatre, it might be more respectful – or at least more etymologically correct – to call the passing of Rob Guest a tremendous loss rather than a tragedy.

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