Friday 23 September 2011


Last night I was sending a text message in which I happened to use the word apocolocyntosis. I was shocked to discover that apocolocyntosis isn't in my phone's dictionary, but even more shocked when the lady I was texting replied that she didn't know what apocolocyntosis meant. Barbarians and heathens! I live among barbarians and heathens.

Apocolocyntosis is, of course, the act of being turned into a pumpkin, or pumpkinification if you like. Now, I'll admit that it's not that useful a word when you're not talking about Cinderella; but, when you are, it's invaluable.

It's also a nice, single, concise word if, for example, a loved one were turned suddenly into a pumpkin and you had to call the emergency services.

The origin of the word has nothing to do with Cinderella. It was the title of a satire by Seneca the Younger. When Roman Emperors died they used to go through an apotheosis, which is when you become a god. So Seneca wrote a satire about how when Claudius died the gods wouldn't have him and he was instead sent to hell. Seneca describes Claudius' deathbed thus:

The last words [Claudius] was heard to speak in this world were these. When he had made a great noise with that end of him which talked easiest, he cried out, "Oh dear, oh dear! I think I have made a mess of myself." Whether he did or no, I cannot say, but certain it is he always did make a mess of everything.

At Claudius' funeral procession they chant this:
Mourn, mourn, pettifoggers, ye venal crew,
And you, minor poets, woe, woe is to you!
And you above all, who get rich quick
By the rattle of dice and the three card trick.

And as I'm a pettifogging minor poet who can actually do the three card trick, I find these lines unutterably tragic.

The Emperor Claudius

P.S. Just to be precise the name Apocolocyntosis was ascribed to Seneca's satire (probably) by Cassius Dio.


  1. Typo alert!

    "When Roman Emperors died the used to go through an apotheosis, which is when you become a god."

  2. I love the line: '...with that end of him which talked easiest, he cried out...'

    I have never turned into a pumpkin, but I did turn into a hedge once.