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The Juicy 'Tell-All' Novel That Changed the Word

Updated: May 19

Modified classic painting of a woman in a fancy dress blowing bubble gum and reading a paper

The WORD, get it? Haha, wordplay.

You tend to hear the word “anecdote” in two contexts these days. Either it’s a fancy stand-in for “story,” or it’s a disparaging adjective, as in, “you only have anecdotal evidence.”

But did you know the root of the word “anecdote” is far more salacious? It goes back to the juiciest tell-all novel of the Byzantine empire, when a respected historian basically published the “Gossip Girl” of Justinian’s court.

On the sly, Procopius documented all the scandals: whom the generals’ wives were secretly seeing, the pious empress’s threats to have people executed, the emperor’s fondness for lying and wasting money, that sort of thing.

After his death, Procopius had the story released under the title “Anekdota,” which roughly translates as “not to publish.”

It was sort of like naming it “Confidential” or “Top Secret” — the title was tongue-in-cheek, and designed to pique a person’s interest!

Over time, the word “Anekdota” (and later “anecdote”) came to be more associated with the personal stories of Justinian’s court than the original meaning (“not to publish”).

For more details on this story, be sure to tune into episode 62 of the Vocabbett podcast!

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