Words we use: Greek

Words we useThis month our series looking at the contributions different languages have made to English continues with Greek. At first thought, the number of words borrowed directly from Greek may seem somewhat insignificant, limited perhaps to only words of contemporary culture adopted into English in recent times. Indeed, especially when compared to some of the other European languages we have looked at so far in this series, Modern Greek loanwords are admittedly scarce in English, with the few that do exist being unsurprisingly dominated by the familiar names of various Greek foodstuffs: pitta, moussaka, retsina (from the Greek retine, ‘pine resin’), keftedes, feta, ouzo, souvlaki (from soubla, ‘skewer’) and tzatziki. In fact, outside of culinary terms, only a handful of Modern Greek loanwords remain, of which taverna and bouzouki, a long-necked lute with three or four pairs of strings, are probably the most familiar.

Given, then, the short and somewhat predictable collection of words above, you may question just how significant the Greek influence on English has been. However, we cannot consider Modern Greek loanwords without also acknowledging the much greater number of words English adopted in the past from so-called ‘Classical’ Greek, the now largely obsolete form of the language from which Modern Greek developed. It is here we find some of our most recognisable words in much greater numbers. Amongst them are odeon (adapted from earlier oideion, ‘song’), pathos (literally ‘suffering’, ‘feeling’), trauma (‘wound’), ion (a form of the verb ienai, ‘to go’), sepsis, cosmos (from Greek kosmos, ‘order’, ‘the world’), mega (from megas, ‘great’), euthanasia (literally ‘good death’), glaucoma (from glaukos, a bluey-green colour), ethos and amnesia (the Greek word for ‘forgetfulness’). Perhaps two of the most interesting of such loanwords, though, are nemesis, which was originally the name of the Ancient Greek goddess of retribution (from the verb nemein, ‘to give out what is due’); and, surprisingly, moron (from the adjective moros, ‘foolish’, ‘dull’), first used in English as a strictly-defined psychological term describing either a person with a mental age of between 8 and 12, or an IQ of between 51 and 70 – as it gained a more colloquial use (namely, ‘a foolish person’), the word fell out of favour in the psychological community and is today considered somewhat derogatory.

Finally, perhaps more than any other language, Greek is also responsible for supplying English with a vast number of prefixes and suffixes, that is, word ‘openings’ and ‘endings’ common often to large groups of similarly-defined words. Amongst the most familiar of these are prefixes like pseudo– (from pseudes, ‘false’), geo– (from ge, ‘earth’), and astro– (from astron, ‘star’), whilst suffixes like –cracy (as in ‘democracy’, from kratos, ‘power’), –ology (as in ‘biology’, from logos, ‘word’) and –graphy (as in ‘geography’, from graphein, ‘to write’) are today so recognisable that their appearance in a word can give us clues to its meaning even if we are unfamiliar it. Moreover, some of these (like electro and phobia) have today become so commonplace in our language that they have even become words in their own right. Paul A. Jones © 2010