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How Greek Words Have Become Part of the English Language

A writer from Wiltshire in the U.K., Joanne is curious about life. the past and where words come from.

What are some words of Greek origin that are used in modern English speech?

What are some words of Greek origin that are used in modern English speech?

Greek Words in the English Language

The English language would be far less expansive without all the Greek words and word stems currently used. We often think that when we speak or write in English that our words are from old English, the Germanic Anglo-Saxon eras, Latin and Romance languages; we rarely consider the Greek language. But yes, you've probably already spoken or written something that has Greek origins today without realising it.

Congratulations, you might say that you're multilingual.

  • Every time you visit the cinema you're in a Greek named place.
  • Ever use an atlas? Again, that's a word with a Greek origin.
  • Listen to music? That word has its basis in Greek mythology and it relates to the nine muses.
  • For the writers out there, how's your syntax?
  • Did you have marmalade on toast today? Marmalade travelled via Portuguese into English.
  • Don't panic! That word was inspired by the god Pan who caused fear and anxiety in his enemies.
  • Are you interested in the etymology of words? Etymology is derived from the Greek etumos,
  • Are you a Pepsi drinker? According to Definitely Greece Pepsi in Greek means digestion and the inventor of the drink Caleb Bradnam believed that consuming it aided digestion and thus a mighty empire was inspired by a word from another one.

The English language contains some 150 thousand words with Greek etymology but the exact number has never been established.

The Greek influence on English was less direct than the Germanic Anglo-Saxons and Roman infiltration, but it has been calculated that approximately 5% of English used today comes from Greek.

The Acropolis in Athens. The Greeks gave us more than exceptional history and architecture; we use words of Greek origin every day like architecture.

The Acropolis in Athens. The Greeks gave us more than exceptional history and architecture; we use words of Greek origin every day like architecture.

The Journey from Koine Greek to the English Language

Ancient Greek is a language that is long dead, but the modern Greek vocabulary was derived from Koine Greek—a popular dialect used throughout Greece and its territories. Koine means common, for all, or shared. Koine Greek has also been referred to as the Alexandrian dialect named in honour of Alexander the Great, Biblical Greek and Common Attic.

Greek is classified as an independent language in the Indo-European group and written records date back to 3400 BC. It was the first language to employ an alphabet containing consonants and vowels that totalled 24 characters.

Until 500–600 AD Greek was the most commonly used language across what we recognise as Europe today. Words often came to English via ancient European languages. Latin spilled from old English to middle English and survived into modern English and our everyday vocabulary.

A table showing the variants in the Greek alphabet.

A table showing the variants in the Greek alphabet.

"It's all Greek to me!"

In the 1950s Greek economist and later Greek Prime Minister Xenophon Zolotas proved how prominent the Greek language was by giving two speeches, the first in 1957 and another two years later. He gave them in English that, with the exception of articles and prepositions comprised of Greek words, could be found in any 20th century English dictionary.

When was the last time that you used the phrase "crocodile tears?" Thousands of years ago the Greeks noted that crocodiles' eyes watered as they ate their prey leading to the popular English term for insincere tears.

Europa (sometimes referred to as Europe) was a mythical Greek Phoenician princess who was abducted by a besotted Zeus and they found themselves on the land mass which we recognise as Europe, hence its name.

From sycophant to idiot, schizophrenia to technophobia, sarcasm to cynicism and architect to thespian, we have a wealth of Greek terms and combined words at our disposal.

The Greek words for distant and sound were tele and phon. Of course, a telescope sees into the distance.

Someone who hates technology has technophobia, two Greek words combined.

Democracy comes from demos, the people and kratos, meaning power.

Acrobat is derived from akros meaning highest point and bainein, to walk.

Cemetery comes from the Greek term for a sleeping place: koimeterion

I always wished to address this Assembly in Greek, but realized that it would have been indeed "Greek" to all present in this room. I found out, however, that I could make my address in Greek which would still be English to everybody. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I shall do it now, using with the exception of articles and prepositions, only Greek words.

— Xenophon Zolotas (1957).

20 Greek Stems for English Words

Greek stem words are more common than you might think. After a while and with a little knowledge you can spot a Greek origin word easily. This list contains just twenty of them:

  1. Anti
  2. Arch
  3. Auto
  4. Bio
  5. Cyclo
  6. Demo
  7. Graph
  8. Hydro
  9. Macro
  10. Mega
  11. Metro
  12. Micro
  13. Mono
  14. Para
  15. Photo
  16. Poly
  17. Psycho
  18. Thermo
  19. Techno
  20. Zoo

So, the last time you took a photo at the zoo or watched "Psycho" instead of washing your automobile you were partaking in some fluent Greek!

Plato, the great Greek philosopher said, "a written discourse on any subject is bound to contain much that is fanciful . . ." And yet, if an English article or book contains Greek words, that is a fabulous linguistic fact in my humble opinion.

Greek philosopher and wrestler Plato.

Greek philosopher and wrestler Plato.

Sources

© 2022 Joanne Hayle