Is Owen and Goodspeed Worth Saving?

portrait of William Bishop Owen

William Bishop Owen

Generations of beginning Homerists have been asked to purchase the little book Homeric Vocabularies by William Bishop Owen and Edgar Johnson Goodspeed. I acquired it in college, and later, when I came to teach Homer, I also asked my students to buy it. It’s a mainstay. The blisteringly critical review by Wm. W. Baker in Classical Review of 1908, however, has convinced me, however, that it is a piece of junk from the student’s point of view. Originally published in 1906, it has been frequently reprinted, and is currently published by the University of Oklahoma Press in a revised edition, copyright 1969. It has lists of words in Homer, organized by frequency. The very first page has an impressive list of verbs occurring 500 to 2,000 times. There are 13 of them, all the greatest hits:

list of 13 common Greek verbs

The 13 most common verbs in Homer, from Owen and Goodspeed (1906 edition), p. 3.

Other lists include verbs that occur 200 to 500 times, down to ones that occur 10 to 25 times. Noun lists give those occurring 500 to 1,000 times, down to 10 to 25 times. There are (combined) lists of common pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions.

Baker first questions the whole approach of learning vocabulary from lists. Probably better to read fast and widely, he says. True enough. But if you must have lists, at least make the lists in a way that gives the student needed help and doesn’t mislead or make the student’s life more difficult. The review (full text below) points out a number of flaws, only some of which were rectified in the 1969 revision. The main version available on the internet is from 1909, and all these criticisms apply.

  • Greek words are not associated with English definitions, which are given only in the back of the book. They should be in parallel columns. Duh! This was fixed in the 1969 revision.
  • Related words, and even different forms of the same words, are widely separated (e.g. τανύω, τείνωμ, τιταίνω, which are nos. 151, 275, and 504 respectively).
  • Words of similar form but different meaning are not juxtaposed so the student may be put on guard not to confuse them.
  • English definitions were haphazardly taken (without attribution) from the English version of Authenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary (1891, now on Perseus), which was old-fashioned and clunky even back in the day. The results are frequently misleading, or just laughable (ἤαβάω, “Am at my youthful prime”).
  • Definitions for parallel forms of the same word (e.g. λανθάνω λήθω) are inconsistent.
  • Needless synonyms make memorization harder. ἔγχος, “Spear, lance.” Why spear and lance?
  • Attic forms, with which most students are more familiar, are not provided for comparison, for words like πρήσσω and θηέομαι. The same goes for words in which Attic meanings vary substantially from Homeric ones, like φοβέω, ἀρκέω, and ἀσκέω.

When I think how many brilliant, dedicated Homerists there are in the world, all the monographs and commentaries that have been published in the last 100 years, the enormous progress made in understanding Homer at an advanced scholarly level, and how no one has thought it worthwhile to create a more effective replacement for this potentially so useful book, it seems to sum up something basic to the culture of classical scholarship. The mind especially boggles at how easy it would be to solve all these problems and add countless improvements in a digital environment. I’m hoping to get my Homer students this spring interested in collaborating on an overhaul for DCC. Ok, here is the full text of Baker’s review in The Classical Review, Vol. 22, No. 4 (Jun., 1908), pp. 128–129:

Homeric Vocabularies: Greek and English Word-Lists for the Study of Homer. By WILLIAM BISHOP OWEN, Ph.D., and EDGAR JOHNSON GOODSPEED, Ph.D. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1906. Pp. viii+ 62. 50 cents, net.

To those who believe in the systematic study of vocabularies, the title of this little book has a hopeful sound. And doubtless the book itself may fulfil its purpose reasonably well in the hands of many teachers. Yet it seems as if it might easily have been made much more useful. The object of such a list should be to enable the student to fix the meaning of as many important words as possible in his mind with the least possible labour. And this can hardly be accomplished with the present book. First of all its arrangement strikes one as faulty. The Greek words and the English are in separate halves of the book, nor do the Greek and their meanings even occupy corresponding places on their respective pages. Much less laborious, certainly, for the learner would have been an arrangement of both on the same page in parallel columns. The words are further separated into three groups, verbs, nouns, and, thirdly, the other parts of speech together, and in each group its members are separated into a half dozen lists according to the frequency of their occurrence in Homer. This plan has some advantages, but, on the other hand, the labour of memorizing is unquestionably much increased: related words and even different forms of the same word are widely separated (e.g. τανύω, τείνω, τιταίνω, are Nos. 151, 275, 504 respectively); nor are words of similar form but different meaning placed in proper juxtaposition so that the student may be put on his guard and not confuse them.

The choice of meanings, too, is not above reproach. They are, we may say, almost entirely chosen from the English translation of Autenrieth’s Homeric Dictionary, as but a brief glance will show, and although meanings of words may not be subject to copyright, it might have been well if the editors had acknowledged their indebtedness. Unfortunately, also, they are not always chosen wisely. For example, τελέθω is ‘Am become, assume,’ where ‘assume’ is worse than useless; so with πειρητίζω, ‘Test, sound.’ For τρωπάω (a word which, so far as Ebeling’s Lexicon shows, does not occur the ten times the editors claim for it) we have ‘Change, vary’—entirely unsuitable meanings except for a single passage. Again one might reasonably expect to find identical meanings given for parallel forms of the same word. But quite the opposite is often the case. Thus λανθάνω is ‘Escape notice, forget,’ λήθω is only ‘Escape notice’; κεδάννυμι is ‘ Scatter,’ σκεδάννυμι, and σκίνδαμαι, ‘Scatter, disperse,’ for no apparent reason. And in general why should so many useless synonyms be given? Why should ἔγχος be ‘Spear, lance’ or θύρη ‘Door, gate’? It seems obvious that unless a word has more than one distinct signification, only a single meaning should be set down. For if the meanings are to be committed absolutely to memory one is easier to learn than two; if not, the method of wide and rapid reading would seem preferable to fooling with a word-list. Among other meanings susceptible of improvement are those of μεγάθυμος, ‘Great-hearted,’—a mere school-boy’s rendering—and ἡβάω, ‘Am at my youthful prime,’—enough to make even a school-boy laugh. All of which goes to show that the meanings must have been selected in a very haphazard fashion.

Additional information would be desirable in some cases: thus the meaning of active and middle of such verbs as ἅπτω and λανθάνω ought to have been differentiated. To have the Attic forms given in words like πρήσσω and θηέομαι would be helpful, though it may not be necessary; so also the Attic meaning, where this varies widely from the Homeric, as in φοβέω, ἀρκέω, and ἀσκέω. And none of these additions would overload the book.

I have noticed a few misprints: δύνω occurs twice (Nos. 46 and 201, and with varying meanings in the two places); No. 407, κορέω, ‘Sweep ‘—a ἅπαξ λεγόμενον— should be κορέννυμι, ‘Satisfy’; at No. 474, for ‘Cover,’ read ‘Cower’; at No. 521, for ‘place,’ read ‘plan’; noun Νo. 198 should be defined ‘olive-oil,’ not ‘olive, oil.’


Haverford College

Fresh translations of the DCC core vocabularies

Five new translations of the DCC Core Latin and Ancient Greek Vocabularies are now up and downloadable in various formats (download buttons can be found at the bottom of the pages):  Greek-Italian, by Elisa Ruggieri, Latin-Italian by Gian Paolo Ciceri, Latin-Portuguese by Vittorio Pastelli, Latin-Spanish by Francisco Javier Pérez Cartagena, and Latin-Swedish by Johanna Koivunen. We at DCC are extremely grateful to these scholars for their work. Thanks are due also to developer Lara Frymark, who figured out a way to upload the lists efficiently. If you would like to contribute a new translation (no German yet?! What about French? Russian?) please see this page.


Core words not in the Aeneid

Vat.lat_.3225_0101_fr_0049r_lcroppedDiverting Latin parlor game: take a very common Latin word (in the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary) that does not occur in Vergil’s Aeneid, and explain its absence. Why would Vergil avoid certain lemmata (dictionary head words) that are frequent in preserved Latin? Sometimes the reason is simply metrical (celeriter, imperator); in other cases, perhaps a word sounded too prosaic (cibus, servusuxor, interim) for high poetry; sometimes a word just isn’t appropriate for the “prehistoric” period of the epic (provincia, praetor). Sometimes it’s a little hard to figure. Why not sapiens? Why not maiores? Why relinquo but not reliquus? Why vagor but not vagus? Check out the list below and let me know what jumps out at you. The Vergilian data comes from LASLA  (no automatic lemmatizers were used, all human inspection), as analyzed by Seth Levin. To check its accuracy, search the DCC version of Frieze’s Vergilian Dictionary, which includes definitions and citations, as well as (LASLA-based) frequency data for individual lemmata. At times there might be some lemmatization issues (for example barbarus came up in the initial list of excluded core words, since Vergil avoids the noun, though he uses the adjective twice. I deleted it from this version). Ok, here’s the list. Enjoy!

eo (adv)
mundus (adj)
solum (adv)

Image: detail of an illustration of Vergil’s Underworld, from  Fulvii Ursini schedae Bibliothecae Vaticanae (Vaticanus Latinus 3225), also known as the Vergilius Vaticanus or “Vatican Vergil” (49r), magnificent illustrated codex written in Italy in rustic capitals at the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century AD. Source: Digital Vatican Library.

Vocabulary Study with Mnemosyne

In an ideal world all vocabulary would be learned contextually, but when trying to learn Latin in a limited amount of time, we usually need flashcards. Guest writer Alex Lee ( describes how to study the DCC Core Latin vocabulary using a nifty piece of software called Mnemosyne, and the electronic flashcards he made for it using the DCC Latin core. Mnemosyne allows for targeted and adaptive use of the cards.

alexlee (2)Learning any language involves acquiring a large amount of vocabulary. For this reason, I think it is very useful for Latin and Greek students to put time and effort into systematic vocabulary study.

One effective way to accomplish this is with flash cards. These days, however, we have the additional option of using special software that removes much of the tedium from the process. More importantly, such software can calculate the best time to present cards for review (using a spaced-repetition algorithm). In this way words can be committed to long-term memory as efficiently as possible.

The value of systematic vocabulary study?

One might reasonably question the benefits of systematic vocabulary study. Strong arguments have been made that vocabulary is better learned in context – that one really acquires new words through actual use. On this view, in which there is a clear distinction between the memorization of word definitions and the actual acquisition of those words, the memorization of vocabulary only helps insofar as it reduces the amount of time spent looking up words. The words thus memorized are not learned or acquired in the real sense, i.e., one is not able to understand and use these words directly and fluidly. Instead, one’s understanding of the word is mediated by the definition that has been memorized.

I’m actually very sympathetic to this view, and I think that any word that has been memorized must be reinforced by actual use, in a meaningful context. Indeed, in the post-beginner stages, new words should be acquired through extensive reading. At the beginner level, however, and when the words in question are core vocabulary words, the systematic study of these words will serve an important boot-strapping purpose. Students will expend less time and energy trying to figure out the meanings and forms of basic words, and they will be less overwhelmed in trying to understand the texts that they encounter. Because the memorized words appear so frequently, it shouldn’t take long before the initial “vocabulary-list understanding” of each word is converted into actual acquisition.


The software that I recommend to my students is called Mnemosyne. It is free, it runs on multiple platforms (Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux), and it has a fairly simple interface.

Mnemosyne keeps cards in a virtual deck. You can add new cards individually, or you can import them in bulk from some other source. Cards are organized according to tags. Each card can have multiple tags, and these tags can be hierarchical. For example, all DCC Latin Core Vocabulary cards begin with the tag CoreLatin, and under this grouping they are tagged according to frequency (CoreLatin::1-200, CoreLatin:201-500, and CoreLatin::501-1000) and semantic grouping (e.g. CoreLatin::Measurement).

In the remainder of this post I will describe how to set up and use Mnemosyne to study the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary. (There are similar software packages out there, such as Anki, but I am not as familiar with them.)

This is meant as a sort of quick start guide. For more details and explanation of other features, take a look at the Mnemosyne documentation.

Installation and setup

Go to the download page and fetch the appropriate package for your platform. The installation procedures for Windows and Mac OS X are fairly typical. (Linux users, however, might need to do some additional work, but I assume they will be able to handle that.)


When you run the software for the first time, select the Configure Mnemosyne… item, which is located under the Settings or Preferences menu. The configuration options are divided among three tabs: General, Card appearance, and Sync server. For options under General, I use the following:


I also recommend looking at the options under Card appearance and setting a larger font.

Import cards

Now you want import the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary cards into your deck. Download the file online here. In Mnemosyne, go to File → Import…, choose the file format “Mnemosyne 2.x *.cards files”, and for the file itself click on the Browse button and select the file that you downloaded.

Now that you have imported these cards, you can view them using the card browser. Go to Cards → Browse cards…. You should see something like this:

(The filename in the box will look different, depending on where the downloaded file is located on your system.) Leave the additional tags blank, and press the OK button. An additional information window will pop up; you can just click OK again.


Activating cards

The tags that have been attached to the cards make it possible for you to mark only a subset of cards as “active” at any given time. For example, go to Cards → (De)activate cards…, and in the right-side pane unselect everything except for 1-200. Click OK.

Now the software will only present you with cards with the tag CoreLatin::1-200, which means that you are studying the cards for the words that fall in the top 200 in the frequency rankings. (There are actually more than 200 such cards, but that is because I have split a handful of entries from the list into multiple cards, e.g., longus -a -um and longē.)

In fact, there are twice as many cards as you might expect, because each word can be presented in two ways: for recognition (Latin to English) and for production (English to Latin). The relevant check-boxes are located in the upper left pane, within the item labeled Vocabulary. Most people probably want to start with recognition only, so uncheck the Production box for now.

Learning new cards

At this point the software will prompt you with a Latin entry in the upper box. Try to think of the correct answer and then click the “Show answer” button (you can also press spacebar or enter). The answer will be revealed in the lower box.

Now you need to grade your response (you can click on the button or press the corresponding number key):

  • If I had no idea about the answer, I typically select 0.
  • If I did not get it right but am getting some vague notion of the answer, I select 1.
  • If I think I knew it well enough to remember for a day or two, I select 2 or 3.
  • If I knew the word, I select 4.
  • If I knew the word immediately and with great ease, I select 5.

Cards that are graded with 0 or 1 will be presented to you again on the same day. If I am in the process of learning a new card, I usually have to grade it as a 1 several times, so that it keeps reappearing within the same session, until I have an initial knowledge of it.

Cards that are graded with 2–5 will be scheduled for subsequent days. The higher the grade, the longer it will be until you see that card again.

Reviewing cards

Cards that you have not yet learned sit in the “Not memorised” pile, while cards that you learned in previous sessions might appear in the “Scheduled” pile (see the status bar at the bottom of the main application window).

If you previously learned a card, the software might decide that you now need to review it. In this case the card will be “scheduled” for today. When you are presented with the card, you must once again grade your response:

  • If I forgot the card, I select 1 (sometimes 0 if I totally forgot it).
  • If I remembered the card, but just barely or with great difficulty, I select 2 or 3. This means the interval was probably a bit too long.
  • If I was able to remember the card correctly, though perhaps with some effort, I select 4. This means the interval was just right.
  • If I remembered the card very easily, I select 5. This means the interval was probably too short.

Mnemosyne will keep a record of your progress with each card. The goal is to show you a card just before you are going to forget it again, as this is supposed to be the best time to review a piece of information in order to promote long-term retention.

Try your best to set aside a chunk of time each day to (a) review previously-learned cards and (b) learn new cards (if you have any new cards pending). Mnemosyne will take care of all the prompting and scheduling; you just have to sit down and go through the cards!

Studying for quizzes (using the cramming scheduler)

Let’s say that you need to study for an upcoming quiz. In this case you want to see all of the active cards, regardless of when they are scheduled. And you don’t want your responses to each card to be recorded by Mnemosyne, because that would mess up the long-term learning schedule for those cards.

In these situations you want to use Mnemosyne’s “Cramming Scheduler”. Go to Manage plugins… under Settings or Preferences, and enable the “Cramming scheduler”. While this plugin is active, all cards will be shown, and no scheduling information will be saved. When you are done studying for the quiz, don’t forget to go back and disable the Cramming scheduler.

Long term memorization

At a little over one thousand words, the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary is a substantial yet manageable list. My hope is that with the aid of Mnemosyne, we can make it as easy as possible for students to start memorizing these words.

The use of tags allows subsets of the Core Vocabulary to be enabled incrementally. For example, students can start with the CoreLatin::1-200 group of highest-frequency words. Once those are learned, they can activate the CoreLatin::201-500 group, and after that the CoreLatin::501-1000 group.

After cards are learned for the first time, however, Mnemosyne will continue to present them again for review; but each card will be presented at appropriate intervals. If students are diligent about taking a few minutes each day to review cards, they can easily make steady progress toward committing these words to long-term memory

Alex Lee ( is a PhD candidate in Classics at the University of Chicago. He has a strong interest in Latin and Greek language pedagogy – in particular, the implications of language acquisition theory and the use of technology as an aid to teaching. His dissertation examines the argumentative and rhetorical function of images in Plato’s Republic.

Latin Core Spreadsheet

Peter Sipes, benevolus amicus noster apud Google+, has kindly made available a Google spreadsheet of the DCC Latin Core Vocabulary. Check it out, and download it. He uses it for those occasions when he is working without an internet connection. I wonder what he is doing with the list? Perhaps a guest blog post is in order. Peter?

The core vocabularies have been on my back burner while I have been finishing up a book project of the dead tree variety while on leave from Dickinson for the fall ’12 semester. But I hope to return very soon to consideration of the semantic groupings in particular. My Dickinson colleague Meghan Reedy pointed out some flaws in the groupings on the Latin side, and we need to get that sorted before she and I move forward on our grand project: a poster that will visually represent the core according to its associated LASLA data, expressing visually each lemma’s frequency, semantic group, and relative commonness in poetry and prose.

In the meantime, if you will be at the meetings of the (soon-to-be-renamed) American Philological Association in Seattle, please stop by the Greek pedagogy session and hear my fifteen minute talk about a way to use the DCC Greek core vocabulary in an intermediate sequence based around sight reading and comprehension, as opposed to the traditional prepared translation method.

Here is the whole line-up:

Friday January 4, 8:30 AM – 11:00 AM Washington State Convention Center Room 604

Wilfred E. Major, Louisiana State University, Organizer
The papers on this panel each offer guidance and new directions for teaching beginning and intermediate Greek. First is a report on the 2012 College Greek Exam. Following are a new way to teach Greek accents, and a new way to sequence declensions, tenses and conjugations in beginning classes. Then we get a look at a reader in development that makes authentic ancient texts accessible to beginning students, and finally a way to make sight reading the standard method of reading in intermediate Greek classes.

Albert Watanabe, Louisiana State University
The 2012 College Greek Exam (15 mins.)

Wilfred E. Major, Louisiana State University
A Better Way to Teach Greek Accents (15 mins.)

Byron Stayskal, Western Washington University
Sequence and Structure in Beginning Greek (15 mins.)

Georgia L. Irby, The College of William and Mary
A Little Greek Reader: Teaching Grammar and Syntax with Authentic Greek (15 mins.)

Christopher Francese, Dickinson College
Greek Core Vocabulary Acquisition: A Sight Reading Approach (15 mins.)