Annals of misreading: CEAUSESCU

Yesterday on Facebook, current political events brought me to a name from the past:

Arnold Zwicky: Topics suddenly resurrected from the past: the Ceausescus. Because of the solid diplomacy accorded to them by the British royal family when the Romanians came on a state visit. If them, then anyone.

Bert Vaux: Interestingly I first read that as “the Caucasus”…

Dennis Preston: And I read “caduceus.”

John Lawler: It took me quite a while to resurrect čaušɛsku.

Most of my readers will probably have forgotten the story of the murderous thieving cult-of-personality couple, the Romanian dictator (from 1965 or 1967, depending on how how calculate these things, through 1989) Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife Elena, who were executed by firing squad 30 years ago; Elena’s final words were reportedly “you mother fucking assholes” (in Romanian, of course). A screen shot from a tape (which you can watch here) of the couple screaming and struggling as they are led off to execution:


Wikipedia’s more measured account begins:

Nicolae Ceaușescu (26 January 1918 – 25 December 1989) was a Romanian communist politician. He was the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989 and hence the second and last Communist leader of Romania. He was also the country’s head of state from 1967, serving as President of the State Council and from 1974 concurrently as President of the Republic until his overthrow in the Romanian Revolution in December 1989, part of a series of anti-Communist and anti-Soviet Union uprisings in Eastern Europe that year.

Eventually, as Wikipedia says laconically,

Ceaușescu was succeeded as President by Ion Iliescu, who had played a major part in the revolution. Capital punishment was abolished shortly thereafter.

CAUCASUS. The first misreading of CEAUSESCU, from Bert Vaux, who’s a specialist in Armenian (an Indo-European language of the Caucasus), so CAUCASUS was no doubt highly salient to him.

CADUCEUS. The word has Greek-mythical and medical associations, neither of which strikes me as particularly salient to dialectologist Dennis Preston. It is, however, a word that is likely to be familiar to academics like Dennis and also one that shares a lot of letters with CEAUSESCU: C, E, A, U, S, and the two-letter sequences CE, US. Misreadings often disregard real-world likelihood in favor of visual similarity.

And now, since the Caucasus has gotten lots of play on this blog, but the caduceus virtually none, some words on the symbol. With its tangled fascinating history, involving the guiding principle, “Two snakes, one snake, who gives a damn!”

From Wikipedia:


The caduceus is the traditional symbol of Hermes and features two snakes winding around an often winged staff. It is often mistakenly used as a symbol of medicine instead of the Rod of Asclepius, especially in the United States. The two-snake caduceus design has ancient and consistent associations with trade, eloquence, negotiation, alchemy and wisdom.

The modern use of the caduceus as a symbol of medicine became established in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of documented mistakes, misunderstandings and confusion.

The Greek Hermes is

the god of trade, heraldry, merchants, commerce, roads, thieves, trickery, sports, travelers, and athletes (Wikipedia link)

and corresponds to the Roman god Mercury. Here’s an extraordinary depiction of Mercury in action, caduceus in hand:


Then there’s the one-snake medical original. From Wikipedia:

(#4) The rod of Asclepius as a nurses’ symbol

In Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius (Greek: Ράβδος του Ασκληπιού, Rábdos tou Asklipioú), also known as the Staff of Asclepius (sometimes also spelled Asklepios or Aesculapius) and as the asklepian, is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine. The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, where it is associated with medicine and health care, yet frequently confused with the staff of the god Hermes, the caduceus.

One Response to “Annals of misreading: CEAUSESCU”

  1. JJM Says:

    “A screen shot from a tape (which you can watch here) of the couple screaming and struggling as they are led off to execution”

    Actually, a Romanian TV/film re-enactment of the execution I believe, but true to the event. There are grainy copies of the real trial and execution out there (and I think the re-enactment incorporates parts of them – particularly Elena yelling at her captors).

    If I recall correctly, the troops in the firing squad were so intent on ensuring the Ceausescus bit the dust that they opened fire the very moment the couple were in front of them. In their zeal, they almost shot the poor soldier who had just brought the two out, but he realized they weren’t going to wait and made a hasty exit.

    Feet don’t fail me now indeed!

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