Clover’s Literary Corner: It’s All Greek to Me

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By Clover Carroll

As we gather around the Thanksgiving table later this month, we should give thanks for the many influences that enrich the English language. I have written previously about words and expressions derived from French and Latin; this month I would like to give thanks for the many thousands of words contributed to English by the Greeks—which may be the most fundamental influence of all. In fact, if I could invite a few ancient Greeks to my Thanksgiving dinner to thank them personally, I would. I might thank the noted healer Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BC) for the Hippocratic Oath, parts of which are still used in most medical schools today, which requires a new physician to swear to uphold specific ethical standards. I would surely invite the seminal philosophers (or lovers of wisdom), Socrates and Plato, whose influence is still felt in the wide educational use of the Socratic Dialogue method of questioning, or the concept of a platonic love, a non-sexual variety that leads us to contemplation of the divine. Of course I could not omit Odysseus, hero of Homer’s epic poem, whose title denotes a long journey full of unexpected adventure—an odyssey—or Achilles, hero of the Trojan War (believed to have been fought in the 12th century BC), since pecan pie is my Achilles heel!

But beyond these easily recognizable allusions to Greek literature and mythology, are you aware of the hundreds and thousands of everyday words that come directly from Greek? There are far too many to mention here, so our exploration must be a marathon—a 26.2-mile race named for the battlefield where the Athenians defeated the Persians in 490 BC. Young messenger Philippides ran this distance south to Athens to notify his countrymen of the hard-won victory—after which exertion, he dropped dead! According to Herodotus (484-c. 425 BC), known as the Father of History, Pan, the god of wild places and animals, helped to win this battle by causing a noisy stampede of animals that instilled great fear in the Persians—resulting in our word panic. In fact, the word alphabet itself derives from the first and second letters of the Greek one (alpha and beta), and the word etymology, or the study of word origins that we are using here, is also Greek, with etym meaning true and logos meaning word or study. Logos becomes a suffix on thousands of scientific words, as well as giving us logic, logistics, and dialogue (i.e., words shared between two people).

Our well-attended feast might resemble an ancient Greek symposium—a drinking party at which ideas might be discussed or stories told. This concept has evolved to refer to a formal meeting at which experts discuss a particular topic, generally without lubrication! To this end, let us hope some of our guests have charisma, or sparkling charm, from the Greek word meaning “gift of grace.” We would not want them to be laconic, using few words to produce terse and concise speech. Spartans, a warrior people who preferred action to words, were known for their austerity in all things and frowned on verbosity; Sparta’s location in Laconia gave rise to this word. At our gathering we might be celebrating that cornerstone of democracy—or government (cracy) by the people (demos)—the election that will have just taken place. Similarly, aristocracy means government by the “excellent” (arist), and later, wealthy. Some fear a dynasty, from dynamis, meaning power. But I hope we won’t dwell long on politics, as we are all sick of the subject! This word stems from the title of a book by Plato’s student, Aristotle (384-322 BC) that deals with “the things concerning the polis,” meaning city or citizenry. This word also gives us acropolis (high city) and metropolis (mother, or central, city).

In the days after Thanksgiving, we will probably need to visit the gymnasium for some physical exercise (from physi, meaning natural), to work off all those extra calories! Gymn meant nude, and the gymnasium was the area where athletes prepared for a public contest, usually naked and coated with olive oil to make their skin glisten. We might we go to church—whether Protestant, Catholic (universal, which originally meant encompassing all varieties before it adhered to one Christian denomination), or other—where we would hear a discussion of theology, i.e. the study of God (theos), as well as readings from the Bible, so named from the Greek word biblos, or book. With philos meaning love and grapho meaning write, we also get bibliophile and bibliography (a written list of books). In fact, since Greek was the language of the Mediterranean region for centuries, the New Testament was originally written in Greek. If we decide to visit the Paramount or Live Arts to see a play, we must acknowledge that ancient Greece was the birthplace of classical drama. Plays were originally sung as lyrics to honor the god Dionysius, and later added poetry and action. The theater was a natural “seeing place” built on a terraced hillside, and the orchestra, or “dancing floor,” was the flattened terrace at the foot of the hill where the chorus of 12 to 15 people danced, sang, or commented on the action with a collective voice. Later, playwrights added a backdrop that stood behind the orchestra and came to be known as the skene. Thespis, the first individual actor, gave us the word thespian. I can’t do this topic justice here, but I will simply add that tragedy (goat song), comedy (village revel), and satire (short comic burlesque) all had their beginnings in classical Greek drama.

Let us hope that no one at our Thanksgiving dinner requires medical attention—but surely some of us will discuss our health! Beyond the Hippocratic Oath, the impact of Greek on scientific and medical terminology is profound. Biology is the study of bios, or life; pathology of pathos, or suffering; gynecology of gyno, or woman (a root shared with androgyny or misogyny); ophthalmology, of the eye—the list goes on and on! In Greek, elektron, meaning “beaming sun,” was used to name the highly valued, glowing, fossilized tree resin amber because, according to myth, when the son of Helios (the Sun) was killed, his mourning sisters became trees and their tears turned to amber. But it was the beaming sun meaning that caused this word to be used for the fundamental particle that produces electricity. Chronos, meaning time, gives us chronology and chronological; psychiatry means the medical treatment, or healing, of the soul—personified as the goddess Psyche. Among other conditions, psychiatrists study phobias, or debilitating fears, such as agoraphobia, fear of crowds, named for the agora, or market, in every Greek town, or acrophobia, fear of heights (such as the acropolis), and claustrophobia, fear of closed spaces. The list could go on and on!

I think you will agree that it is no euphemism, or sugarcoating (eu = good + ism = a thing done), to say that Greek provides a cornerstone of the English language. Since the Romans conquered Greece relatively late in ancient history (146 BC), many Latin words were originally derived from Greek as well. Greeks are right to feel proud of their myriad contributions to western culture, including language, science, literature, and philosophy—as dramatized to exaggerated comic effect in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002). Before we leave our Thanksgiving celebration, let us raise a toast to Greece for these many, foundational contributions: yamas!

For more Greek language roots, visit www.enhancemyvocabulary.com/word-roots_greek.html and/or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Greek_and_Latin_roots_in_English.

And for a wonderful survey of ancient Greece’s contributions to western civilization, read Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea by Thomas Cahill. Happy Thanksgiving!

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