Aorist

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The aorist is a tense of the verb in Ancient Greek – and in some other languages. The word aorist, which may be used either as a noun or as an adjective, is pronounced as if it were written ‘air-ist’, IPA: / eɪərɪst or ɛərɪst/.

The aorist is a past tense of the verb and is used to refer to a past action or event, either one which was momentary or one which lasted for a period of time - for example, the English sentences ‘The boy kicked the ball’, ‘John walked from London to Land’s End’, and ‘A shot was fired into the crowd’ would all be translated into Ancient Greek using verbs in the aorist tense, the first two with a verb in the active voice, and the third with a verb in the passive voice.

The aorist may, therefore, be contrasted, on the one hand, with the imperfect tense, which would be used to translate verbs referring to a continuing or repeated action or situation in the past, such as ‘John was walking from London to Land’s End (when he was attacked by an armed gang)’ or ‘John used to walk from London to Land’s End every summer’; and, on the other hand, with the perfect tense, which would be used to refer to past actions insofar as they continued to have a continuing relevance in the present, such as ‘John has walked from London to Land’s End and is now utterly exhausted’.

A quite different use of the aorist is the so-called gnomic aorist, i.e., the use of the aorist tense in the statement of a gnome, i.e., a practical maxim or general truth of a proverbial nature, such as ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ or ‘The early bird catches the worm’. These proverbial sayings might well be translated into Ancient Greek with their verbs in the aorist tense, though the present tense, as in English, would also be possible.

Etymological notes: (1) The word aorist comes from the Greek ἀόριστος (aóristos), ‘indefinite, undefined’’, a compound from - (‘not’) and ὁρίζειν (horizein), ‘to define’. (2) A gnome – pronounced as a single syllable with the g silent (IPA: /nəʊm/) - is a short sentence expressing a general truth of a proverbial nature. The English word is a transliteration of the Greek noun γνώμη (gnōmē), ‘intelligence, judgment’, while gnomic derives from the related adjective γνωμικός (gnōmikos), ‘related to or characteristic of a gnome, cryptic, obscure’.