"Out of Africa" Phrase in Use Since Ancient Greece

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"Whoever was copying the proverbs from Zenobius could have just changed the word to make the meaning stronger, or there could simply have been a transcription error," said Solodow. "The Greek words for good and evil, kainon and kakon, might have looked similar."

Erasmus, a prominent Dutch theologian and scholar, included the phrase in his collection of proverbs, Adagia. In this work, the proverb reverted to the Greek form: "There is always something new coming out of Africa." The first edition of Erasmus' book of adages was published in 1500.

The phrase was clearly well known during the Renaissance, and would have retained its negative connotation, Solodow said.

Modern Usage

By the time the phrase reached modern times, its message changed considerably.

The trustees of the South African Museum chose the saying as its official motto in 1877 to honor the institution's spirit of scientific endeavor and to highlight ancient fossils being discovered on the continent.

"When it reappears in the 20th century, it has mostly a positive sense," said Solodow. "Whenever the change took place, two things had occurred; either the proverb had been cut off from its original meaning, or the word 'new' didn't immediately signal something bad anymore."

Politically, the phrase signaled a period of hopefulness as Africa shrugged off colonialist governments, said Feinberg.

"In the late 1940s and 1950s there was a tremendous period of excitement as the colonies in Africa began to emerge as independent countries," he said. "There was a lot of hope for the continent; the resources were there, and some of the countries, like Ghana, had tremendous monetary reserves. There was an overwhelmingly positive sense of something good happening."

In science, the phrase is applied to the widely accepted theory of human origins. The "Out of Africa" theory holds that Africa is the cradle of humanity, the place where humans first evolved. This is an overwhelmingly positive use of the phrase, the authors note.

The phrase can be used in a somewhat pejorative sense. In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag attacks the use of "Out of Africa" in connection with theories of the origin of AIDS. She suggests the usage is a function of western bias. Many headline writers attach the phrase to conditions thought to have originated in Africa.

Still, in its sojourn through history, the ancient proverb has evolved from a description suggesting the bizarre to a phrase used more as a geographic designation.

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