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”.


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.

© 2018 Mary Phelan


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