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The word Corinthian comes from Corinth, the (English form of the name of the) ancient Greek city-state situated on the Isthmus of Corinth in the south of Greece. Ancient Corinth was a flourishing port with about 200,000 inhabitants and, after Athens, the largest and richest of the Greek city-states; its present-day successor is much smaller, with a population of less than 30,000. The word Corinthian, which may be either an adjective or a noun, is used in a variety of ways.

As well as meaning ‘of or relating to (the city of) Corinth’, Corinthian is the name of one of the classical orders of architecture: Corinthian columns have bell-shaped capitals with decoration based on acanthus leaves. This use of the word has been extended, and Corinthian is sometimes used to describe other ornate or elaborate forms of decoration.

The inhabitants of ancient Corinth had a reputation for dissipation and sexual promiscuity, and the city was famous for its prostitutes. In ancient Greek the verb Κορινθιάζεσθαι (Korinthiazesthai) means ‘to be sexually promiscuous’, and the expression Κορίνθιος κόρη (Korinthios korē, ‘Corinthian girl’) was sometimes used to mean ‘prostitute’ (see, e.g., Plato, Republic 404d). In English the adjective Corinthian may be used to mean ‘dissolute, given to luxury’, while the expression ‘to play the Corinthian’ means ‘to live a life of debauchery’.

In Britain during the Regency, i.e., the first decades of the nineteenth century, a group of dissolute young aristocrats came to be known as the Corinthians. What distinguished this group from otherwise similar groups was the devotion of its members to sport: they rode to hounds, went shooting, boxed, and engaged in other forms of competitive physical activity. This gave rise to the use of the word Corinthian to mean ‘an amateur sportsman, especially one who is committed to the highest standards of sportsmanship’, and to the expression ‘to play in the Corinthian spirit’ meaning ‘to engage in sport in the spirit of a gentleman amateur’. As a result the word Corinthian forms part of the name of many sporting organisations. An early example is Corinthians F.C., an amateur football club, founded in London in 1882, with as one of its aims the promotion of the highest standards of sportsmanship in the game. For a number of years it had the best team in the country, and survived until 1939, when it was merged with Casuals Football Club to form Corinthian-Casuals F.C., currently members of the Isthmian League.