What does batrachomyomachia mean?

There really is such a word as batrachomyomachia. It is an obscure word and I can’t imagine how I would drop it into a conversation. I certainly wouldn’t be able to claim I was writing plain English if I used it in a business document. Nonetheless, it is a real word with an interesting history, which is more than a good enough reason to make it our word of the week.

So what does it mean? Although it looks like a term for a disease of the throat (or indeed sounds like it) it is not a medical or scientific term. It has a much older origin and its meaning is far more interesting.

Like many words we find its meaning by chopping up the word into components and analysing the pieces. The three components are: batrachos meaning to do with frogs or toads; myo meaning to do with mice (as mus in Latin); and machia meaning power (from Proto-Indo-European magh). It literally means the battle of frogs and mice, which would make it a very obscure word for what is a highly unlikely event.

What it really means is a fight over nothing, a storm in a teacup, a silly altercation that has escalated into something much worse! It comes from the title of a mock-heroic epic poem, once thought to have been written by Homer, The Batrachomyomachia. Modern scholars now think it is the work of an unknown poet from the time of Alexander the Great (about 340 BC).

The Batrachomyomachia

The story starts in the morning. A mouse prince, drinking from a lake, meets the Frog King, who invites him to his palace. The Frog King starts to swim across the lake with the mouse on his back.

But things go horribly wrong! A hungry watersnake appears. The Frog King dives deep into the water but forgets about the mouse on his back. The mouse drowns.

The mouse’s brother seeing the disaster runs to tell his mates. The mice form an army to avenge the Frog King’s treachery, and send a messenger to the frogs with a declaration of war. The frogs blame their King who denies knowing anything about it.

Meanwhile, Zeus, seeing the war brewing, suggests that the gods take sides but they decide not to intervene.

The mice easily win the battle. Zeus, feeling a bit guilty, summons an army of armoured crabs (much like tanks) to prevent the frogs being massacred. The crabs force the mice to retreat and the battle is ended just as the sun goes down.