I learned a new word recently: deipnosophist.
A few Saturdays ago, I was driving to meet my friend Sherri for a latte and turned on the radio, hoping to catch the quiz program Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me on National Public Radio. Instead the word game show Says You was playing. As I listened, a new word caught my attention and my heart.
One team was presented with three possible definitions for “deipnosophist” and had to choose which they thought was the right one. Their options were 1) a blowhard or pretender; 2) an expert in gases; and 3) someone skilled in the art of dinner conversation.
The team chose the last one because (like me) they loved the concept. And it turned out to be the correct definition.
Since then I have delighted in telling people about this word.
I love saying it – \dīpˈnäsəfə̇st\ – and am grateful to have heard it spoken rather than come across it in a book.
I love the idea of dinner conversation being an art and that there is a word for someone with this skill. The fact that a word exists for this indicates there is value in dinner conversation. Dinner is a regular occurrence, so why not be more intentional about this opportunity to talk with others at the table?
Deipnosophist comes from deipnon ‘chief meal, dinner’ (of unknown origin) + Greek sophistēs ‘master of a craft; wise man, sophist.’
We have a 3rd century literary work by Anthenaeus of Naucratis to thank for this captivating word. Written in Greek and set in Rome, Deipnosophistai depicts a series of banquets where long discussions take place. The guests discuss classic authors, food and wine, music, art, philology and more. It also contains recipes in classical Greek and is possibly the oldest surviving cookbook.
I haven’t figure out how to use this new word in a sentence other than to exclaim, “I learned a cool word: deipnosophist!” But I have spent more than one walk with Asha pondering what qualities I would assign to such an expert.
On these walks, I decided that skillful conversation goes beyond small talk and deeper than “What did you do today?” It includes everyone at the table rather than one person holding forth with a monologue or lecture. It involves listening as much as, and perhaps more than, speaking. It doesn’t mean avoiding politics and religion; it does mean respecting, even seeking out, different opinions and making it safe to express them.
But deipnosophist caught my attention because it doesn’t just describe a skilled conversationalist, but specifically an expert in dinner conversation.
According to the Online Etymological Dictionary the Greek deipnosophistes is ‘one learned in the mysteries of the kitchen’. This definition adds to my delight because it brings in the importance of food.
“Mysteries of the kitchen” suggests more than the skill and wonder of cooking, as amazing as those are. It evokes both the unknown and the sacred. It points to the way dinner is more than food. A shared meal offers sustenance for the body and the deeper nourishment of connection. Being fed in this way, helps us to live from a place of being seen and heard and this ripples out in powerful ways.
Good conversations aren’t just the domain of dinner. They can happen in the car, in staff rooms, on walks, over the phone. But something happens when you pair conversation with food. Food, especially dinner as the day winds down, encourages spaciousness and makes room for unhurried, and perhaps deeper, conversation.
In our fast-paced world and over-scheduled lives, I worry that dinner is falling by the wayside as people grab a quick bite between work and evening commitments, or eat at the computer or in front of the TV. I worry that by not making this time to be together, we are losing a sense of connection and belonging. When we don’t feel connected and supported, we start to hide parts of ourselves and censor information from our conversations. We stop showing up as our full selves and the world is poorer for it.
I’m concerned that we leave the table hungry – hungry for meaningful conversations, hungry for community and connection.
I delight in the word deipnosophist because it speaks to my own sense of what’s possible when people come together over dinner.
Come. Sit. Eat. Talk. Be fed. Be seen. Be heard. Be nourished.