My Big Fat Greek Vocabulary

Updated on February 15, 2018

The Wonder of Grecian English

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, said Virgil, in relation to a certain wooden horse that the people of Troy received from a Grecian military contingent around 1200 BC. Today, we all know what a Trojan horse is, a wonderful cliché for a present with dubious connotations for its receiver. However, we did accept a gift from the ancient Greeks, one that we use every day. The English language is awash with actual Greek words, and words and expressions derived from the Greek language. The most cursory study of this etymology opens a window into the Mediterranean culture of c.3000 years ago and reveals how the ancient and modern minds are interlinked. Detailing all Greek words would be a Herculean task, but the following guide is a quick road map to gaining an ear for those ancient phrases and expressions.

Scholarship and Learning

In English, our word "philosopher" is composed of two Greek words, "philo" meaning love and "sophist", which means learning. Greece, of course, gave the world the famous gang of three philosophers, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Our modern school system is derived from the learning methods of classical times, the word "skhole" meaning "learning, disputation and philosophy". From it, we derive our words school and schoIar. Around 428 BC, Plato founded his Academy, the name surprisingly derived from that of "Akademos", a Greek hero. Today, an academy is still a place of specialist learning and a "sophisticated" person is one who is socially advanced.

Public Life and Politics

We credit ancient Greece with being the home of democracy, from the word "demos" or people. The word politics is derived from "polis", which meant the city-state. The town was the place to conduct business, and where the laws were made. From "polis", we derive metropolitan and "rhetoric" still means persuasive speech.

Language and Linguistic Devices

Our literature has its origin in ancient Greece, modern novels being the storytelling form descended from the epic poems recited by bards. In Greek, "mele" meant poem, a word that lives on in melody or music, a poem being a musical arrangement of words. Since writing materials were scarce and expensive in ancient times, poetry had to be memorized. The use of a recurring meter or rhythm helped the performer greatly when reciting. We still use Greek phrases, such as “iambic pentameter” to define poetic rhyming metres.

Performance and Theatre

It is no surprise that words concerning performance have their origins in ancient Greece, the birthplace of the art form we call theatre, itself derived from "theatron" which means "to behold". From the Greek gang of three playwrights, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, we have inherited a raft of words that define theatre itself, for example, tragedy, comedy and satire. The word “satire” is derived from Satyr, one of those nasty little mythological beasts that used to follow Bacchus about in his woodland carriage, lampooning all who stood in his way. Our word pantomime is derived from “mimesis”, which means to imitate. In classical times, the word orchestra meant “open performance space”, while “skene” meant theatrical sets, the origin of our modern word, scene. Because Greek theatres were wide open arenas, filled with hundreds of people, sound effects were important, with musicians banging drums and clashing cymbals, whenever the script demanded. Onomatopoeia has never gained an English equivalent and is simply a way of representing audible sounds in words, for example, “smash” , "crash" and “bang”, to the delight of comic book creators everywhere.

Emotions and Passions

Because of this theatrical connection, words that mean heightened feelings and extreme situations tend to have their origins in Greek. When we talk of agonising over a matter, we are using the word “agon”, which meant a violent argument or contest. A very proud man is filled with “hubris”, while an irrational fear is a “phobia”. When the price of something rises and rises, we say it is hyper inflated, and to be ecstatic means to be wildly happy. On a day when you feel apathetic, you are channeling the Greek "aporia", which means a mental impasse or a philosophical puzzle.

Greek Mythology

Many of the actual Greek words we use reflect the violent world of Greek mythology, with words like chaos, crisis, nemesis and catharsis in common use today. Since so many of our modern inventions would seem almost mythical to the ancients, it is appropriate that we use words that refer to superpowers, like “tele”, to prefix many of our time-space collapsing gadgets.

We still use words that reflect the darkness of the ancient world. When we disparage a man, we tear his character apart, and in ancient Greece, the verb "sparagmos" meant to literally tear apart a sacrificial victim.

The Ones That Got Away

It is worth looking at those words that did not make it to the English language. One stock character that appeared in Greek plays was the agroikos or rustic character, our equivalent of the embarrassing country cousin or "country bumpkin". The word portion "agr" has an obvious descendant in matters to do with the land, but could the "oikos" portion be the origin of our word "oik"? The arts fundraiser is more likely to seek a financial sponsor, rather than a chore gos, and we say that the man's argument is filled with generalizations, not gnomai.

Skewed Meanings

Some words have gotten distorted slightly with the passage of time. The Greek Daimon, which we might translate as demon, actually means “divine spirit”. Eros might be a beautiful youth with wings on, but he is also a “fundamental force beyond control”. Incredibly, the word heroic meant “posturing”.

Divergence

Certain Greek words have spawned many English children, for example, gnosis or proof, which has diverged into diagnosis and prognosis. Perhaps the most beautiful descendant of all is “psyche”, which in Greek means both soul and butterfly. The ancients believed that these ethereal insects were souls ascending to heaven on coloured wings. In our rational world, the word psyche simply refers to the non-physical part of us. However, we still use the Greek “metamorphosis” to describe the insect’s almost magical change from grubby caterpillar to gaudy fly. And, of course, the Greek “morph” and “change” are interchangeable.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Mary Phelan

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Mary Phelan profile imageAUTHOR

        Mary Phelan 

        8 months ago from London

        Thank you, By George. I am still expanding my knowledge of the subject and I welcome comments from readers.

        Best wishes, Mary

      • profile image

        Mary Phelan 

        8 months ago

        Thank you, ByGeorges: I am still expanding my knowledge of the subject and I welcome information from readers.

        Best wishes, Mary

      • profile image

        ByGeorges 

        8 months ago

        While we are on the subject let us please not forget my favourite Greek root of "ge" which derives from the old Greek term for "earth" and is commonly used in the English prefix geo. This Greek root is the word origin of several English words, including geography, geometry and geology where this last is of course the study of the earth.

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)