Tim Bowen delves into Greek history to explain the origin of this terse Word of the week.

The first man to climb Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary, died at the age of 88. In paying tribute to New Zealand's most famous son, the Prime Minister of New Zealand said: "He was a quintessential Kiwi ... from his craggy appearance and laconic style ... to his directness and honesty". This description of Hillary as being laconic is clearly intended as a positive attribute. He was a man of few words and this was no bad thing. Apart from meaning 'using very few words', laconic can also mean 'terse', as in ‘the government has issued a terse response’, meaning that the response was short and intended to convey annoyance or even anger.

The word laconic is derived from a region of ancient Greece called Laconia, the capital of which was the city of Sparta. The inhabitants of Sparta were famed for their warfare but also for the economy of their speech. The story goes that Philip II of Macedon once called on the Spartans to surrender, sending them the following message: "if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city”. The Spartans, in typical laconic style, sent a reply containing just one word: “If”.