01 April 2011


These days, agony is just a colourful term for pain or intense suffering. To agonize means to struggle, to suffer torment or even torture. But there's also an inflection of melodrama to the term. We use it when we want to inject a sense of urgency into our personal trials and tribulations:

"I agonized over which shoes to wear with this outfit."

This usage of agonize comes closest to its Greek roots.

Back in the day, "agon" meant "struggle" or "contest." Although "agon" could refer to the kind of contest you have in an athletic competition, my favourite use of the term occured in the theatre.

Greek Comic Masks (Source)
Greek classical theatre usually included a debate between two figures concerning the main conflict of the play. This section of the play was called the agon, and featured two characters - the "protagonist," so called because he or she went first, and the "antagonist," the one who opposes the protagonist.  The chorus - that weird collection of simultaneous speakers who stood for the voice of the community in the play, the collective consciousness of society as a whole, and the playwright - stood by as judge of the agon or contest.

Of the agon, Wikipedia notes: "The character who speaks second always wins the agon, since the last word is always hers or his."

I don't remember all of my Greek drama readings well enough to know if this claim is true or not, but it's interesting. It means that in both comedy and tragedy, the antagonist always wins the agon. In tragedy, this makes sense. In comedy, it makes a kind of sense too. Greek comedy often valorizes the person who doesn't follow the rules, but who rises to the top anyway. Although this person is usually an opposing force to the powers that be, and technically an antagonist, he stirs up the status quo and makes life worth living again.

So the next time you have an argument, feel free to claim that you're agonizing. And make sure you get the last word.


Laura Josephsen said...

How interesting!! Thanks for the post--I got to learn something new and fascinating. :D

Trisha said...



Alison Pearce Stevens said...

I just learned something new today--thanks!
Alison Pearce Stevens

Dan said...

Great post! I love etymology but never have the time I'd like to really explore the origins of words.

Thanks for this!



A word that we all expereience in life but it's how we deal with it that matters, A great start to the challenge and look forward to reading more as the month enfolds.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I try to get the last word, but my wife usually wins.

Dafeenah said...

I love Greek tragedies the most. It seems all Greek lead characters suffer from some agony or another.

Stopping by from the Challenge!

raisingmarshmallows said...

I agonized getting out of bed this morning...well every morning. Great post!

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Laura: I will try to bring the HIGHER EDUCATION VIBES this month. I'm trying to remember everything I learned in school before my brain shrivels.

@Trisha: Me too!

@Alison: Yay!

@Dan: It's just a little something I learned from reading drama and philosphy.

@Yvonne: Thanks, and ditto!

@Alex: Our spouses are our best and worst antagonists.

@Dafeenah: One of my writing friends says that if you want to make your characters work for you, you've got to suffer 'em up. The Greeks were experts in this area.

@Nikki: too.

Ann said...

I love discovering the origin of words and how they were once used.

Unknown said...

I'm perhaps more intrigued with the protAGONist and antAGONist facing off in the AGON. I'm thoroughly amused. Yay Greeks! They made language so simple ... why couldn't the Gauls have had the same mindset?

Su said...

I have a lot of agonizing in my life... at least, that's what I tell people. ;)

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Eileen: Seriously, writing this post made me think differently about narrative structure. "Protagonist" and "antagonist" mean "first agonist" and "the agonist who comes after the first one"? Who knew? (Probably a lot of classicists, that's who.)

Silly Gauls. Silly Saxons. Silly Angles. Silly Jutes. Damn Picts. The problem is always getting conquered. It really messes with your language.

@Su: Let's start calling ourselves agonists and really impress people. I'm thinking about putting that on my next business card.

E.C.Bell said...

Hi Elizabeth,
Really interesting post -- and you're right! It's nice to meet another Canadian!

TS Hendrik said...

That's really cool. I love learning about the origins of words.

Gail M Baugniet - Author said...

I agonized over whether to leave a message but of course I wanted to all along!

Anonymous said...

Nice to know about the origins of such an oft-used word!

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Eileen: Welcome, welcome.

@TS: Glad you liked it.

@Gail: Ha ha ha.

@damyanti: Word nerds unite!