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The Word

Modern nemesis

How a fickle goddess became your enemy

By Jan Freeman
May 9, 2010

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Language questions don’t usually arrive in my inbox recast as comic-book faceoffs, but Mark Lussky’s recent query was an entertaining exception.

”I nearly got into a bar brawl at the Superheroes’ Tavern the other night when someone referred to Lex Luthor as Superman’s nemesis,” he wrote. ”I was able to restrain my ire for long enough to let ’someone’ know that, as Nemesis was Retributive Justice, and as Superman was good while Lex Luthor was evil, it was Superman who was Lex Luthor’s nemesis and not the other way around.”

Kidding aside, Lussky wonders how we came to tolerate the use of nemesis to mean merely a tormentor or archrival. ”Doesn’t anyone study Bulfinch’s or Hamilton’s Mythologies anymore?” he asks (rhetorically, we must assume).

His question might surprise you, if you’ve only encountered the lowercase nemesis of modern usage. But in fact, the word began its long journey as the name of a Greek goddess, herself a superheroine of sorts, whose job was delivering a smackdown to uppity mortals. Nemesis was an ”avenging goddess,” Thomas Bulfinch explained in his popular 19th-century collection of Greek myths, who embodied ”the righteous anger of the gods, particularly towards the proud and insolent.”

As that capsule biography hints, Nemesis’ role as ”retributive justice” was complex; the gods she served were not impartial but tetchy and jealous. Nemesis was a redistributionist at heart, making sure nobody got cocky about his good fortune; she was the kind of spirit we mean to appease when we knock on wood.

Until the 19th century, Nemesis would have been familiar to readers of English literature, both in her goddess garb and in the abstract, as any agent of retribution. As recently as 1971, in fact, Agatha Christie had her detective heroine, Miss Marple, play the role of Nemesis--the vengeance a wrongdoer couldn’t outrun--in the novel of that name. But in translation, Nemesis wasn’t always as fearsome as she had seemed in native land, where she could summon the Furies for help. In the novel ”Tom Jones” (1749), Fielding poked fun at the ”heathen goddess” whom the ancients had to mollify, treating her as a grouch ”thought by them to look with an invidious eye on human felicity, and to have a peculiar delight in overturning it.” Trollope, more than a century later, portrayed her (in ”Framley Parsonage”) as a gimpy crone, who ”seldom fails to catch a wicked man though she have sometimes a lame foot of her own,” and who’s not above boasting of victories that aren’t her own.

Nemesis also appeared regularly in the guise of a femme fatale, poised to deliver the punishment a man might or might not deserve: A character in an 1889 story was ”Nemesis with bold black eyes, jet black hair, and a smiling mouth.” In 1903, Ambrose Bierce wrote to a friend about a woman: ”I did not know about your Nemesis, and suppose myself unacquainted with her. You’ll find Nemesis anew afore you’re as old as I, and most of them will be vindictive.”

It was only in the 20th century that Nemesis, ancient personification of payback, was demoted to nemesis, a mere archrival or regular opponent. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the new sense to the 1930s, and calls it a North American innovation. I wouldn’t be surprised if it took root in sportswriting, as the use of nemesis meaning ”downfall”--”The Stockton team proved their nemesis” (1923)--evolved into expressions of ongoing rivalry: ”The Chicagoans knocked off their nemesis team, the Pirates” (1937).

Whatever its source, the new usage appears to have met no opposition; only a few language writers mention it, the earliest in 1980, half a century too late to head off the ”persistent tormenter” sense of nemesis. But the word was probably destined to evolve; we no longer believe the rich and proud can expect comeuppance, nor even that they deserve it. Our nemesis is a more personal enemy, tailored to the situation of the individual in a modern democracy: It still pursues and punishes, but justice, retributive or otherwise, isn’t necessarily part of the equation.

And the Superheroes’ Tavern, it turns out, is not the most logical place to stage a defense of classical Nemesis. Comic-book authors, over the decades, have applied her name to all sorts of characters--male and female, human and superhuman, virtuous and villainous--in recent decades. If we now describe Lex Luthor as Superman’s nemesis, Superman’s own creators have to share the blame.

But why blame anyone? Nemesis has only done what useful words always do--expanded her repertoire. Meanwhile, Persephone is stuck on the farm, Terpsichore can only dance, Charon eternally crosses that gloomy river. They must envy Nemesis and her buddies Mania, Hermes, and Nike, who--though no longer treated as gods--at least can boast that they’re still household names.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is mailtheword@gmail.com; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar From the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).