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13 English Words with Greek Origins

english words greek origin
Image source: IStock

 

English has been shaped and enriched by a variety of different languages and cultures over time. Greek is one of the most significant contributors to the English language, with its rich culture and language leaving a lasting mark on Western civilization. Some of the more interesting etymological origins of English words from Greek tend to have legendary myths or stories behind them. While others may have more practical origins related to the Greek language’s contributions to fields such as medicine, philosophy, literature, and science.

 

1. Echo

cabanel-echo-painting
Echo by Alexander Cabanel, 1874, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

In Greek mythology, Echo was a nymph who was known for her beautiful voice and her ability to entertain others with her conversational wit. Zeus, notorious for his many affairs, became enamored with Echo’s charm. However, his wife, Hera suspecting that Echo was one of his mistresses decided to take her revenge. She cursed Echo to only be able to repeat the words of others, ensuring that she could not communicate with anyone except by reciting their words back to them. The word echo, therefore, came to be associated with imitation describing sound reflecting and returning to the listener.

 

2. Melancholy 

 

The term melancholy finds its origin in the ancient Greek concept of the four humors, which supposed that the human body was composed of four fluids — blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile — each associated with a particular temperament. An excess of black bile was believed to cause feelings of sadness and despair, and the Greek word μελαγχολία literally translates to ‘black bile.’ Today, melancholy is a word that carries a poetic and literary weight, used to convey a mood or atmosphere of introspection and sadness.

 

3. Marathon 

soldier marathon merson
The Soldier of Marathon by Luc-Olivier Merson, 1869, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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A marathon has become a symbol of extreme perseverance and physical fitness, commonly used to refer to a long-distance race. According to legend, in 490 BCE, the Greeks faced a formidable invasion by the Persian Empire. The Persian army had landed at the plain of Marathon, located a short distance from Athens. The Athenians, realizing the imminent danger to their city, sent a messenger named Pheidippides to Sparta to request assistance. Pheidippides was a seasoned runner and undertook the formidable task of running the entire distance from Athens to Sparta, spanning over 150 miles, to deliver his crucial message. His body, however, gave way after this effort, and he collapsed and died from exhaustion. In honor of Pheidippides’ legendary feat of endurance, a race was established that traced the same route he had taken.

 

4. Barbarian

 

Barbarian, from βάρβαρος meaning foreign or strange, was used by the Greeks to refer to anyone who did not speak their language. The term was onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of foreign languages that the Greeks could not understand. Over time, the meaning of the word “barbarian” evolved. The word came to signify more than just language differences; it also implied a lack of culture, education, and refinement. As the Greeks saw themselves as the height of civilization, they regarded anyone who didn’t speak their language as inferior.

 

5. Galaxy

birth milky way rubens
The Birth of the Milky Way by Peter Paul Rubens, 1636-1637, via Museo del Prado

 

A galaxy is a colossal system of stars, planets, gas, and dust, all held together by gravity and spinning around a central point. It’s a vast cosmic giant that houses billions of stars, many of which have their own planetary systems. Derived from γαλαξίας which means ‘milky circle’, the word is a reference to the band of light that appears across the night sky, known as the Milky Way.  In Greek mythology, Zeus was said to have placed his infant son, Heracles, on Hera’s breast while she was asleep, allowing the baby to drink her divine milk. However, when Hera awoke and discovered the child suckling at her breast, she pushed him away, causing a jet of her milk to spray across the night sky. This was thought to have formed the Milky Way.

 

6. Alphabet 

 

Commonly known, the word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, ἄλφα, and βήτα. The English alphabet, like many other alphabets used in modern Western countries, ultimately derived from the Greek alphabet. The ancient Greeks created the first true alphabet, which consisted of 24 letters and was adapted from the earlier Phoenician script. The Greeks’ contribution to the development of the alphabet profoundly impacted the evolution of Western civilization, allowing for the written transmission of knowledge, literature, and culture across vast distances and times.

 

7. Eureka

scholar archimedes fetti
Portrait of a scholar (Archimedes?) by Domenico Fetti, circa 1620, via Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

 

Eureka is an exclamation of joy or triumph that is used to express excitement or jubilation upon discovering or solving something. The word stems from the infamous story of the Greek scholar Archimedes. According to legend, Archimedes was struggling to solve a problem related to the density of an object, and he had been pondering the problem for a long time. One day, as he was taking a bath, he suddenly realized the solution to the problem and shouted eureka which literally means ‘I have found it’ in Greek.

 

8. Academy 

plato head bust
Head of Plato, mid-3rd century CE, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

 

Academy comes from the Greek word Ἀκαδημία, which referred to a grove of trees just outside the city that was named after the Athenian hero Academus. The philosopher Plato was said to have purchased the grove and founded a school there, which became known as the Academy. This school was one of the most renowned institutions of learning in the ancient world, teaching subjects such as philosophy and mathematics. Today, the term is still used to describe schools, colleges, and universities, as well as specialized institutions focused on specific fields such as science or the arts.

 

9. Dinosaur 

 

Mysterious, mighty, and fearsome, this group of prehistoric creatures roamed the earth over 150 million years ago. The word dinosaur itself is a combination of two Greek words —  δεινός meaning ‘terrible’, ‘fearful’ or ‘strange’ and σαῦρος translating to lizard. The term was first introduced to the world by British paleontologist Richard Owen in 1842. His discovery of large, fossilized bones led him to recognize the unique characteristics of these creatures and distinguish them as a new group of reptiles.

 

10. Typhoon 

alabastron typhon
Alabastron with Typhon, 600-575 BCE, via Yale University Art Gallery

 

A typhoon is a tropical cyclone that forms over the western Pacific Ocean, known for its powerful winds, heavy rains, and destructive force. These storms can bring massive waves, torrential downpours, and devastating flooding to coastal communities, leaving destruction and chaos in their wake. The word derives from τυφῶν, whirlwind, which is thought to have stemmed from the mythical monster, Typhon. This primordial deity was a gigantic creature with a hundred serpent heads, born from Gaia and Tartarus. He was portrayed as a fearsome opponent of the Olympian gods, whom he challenged for control of the universe. In their struggle, Typhon was said to have unleashed a torrent of destruction, causing earthquakes, and massive storms. Despite his strength, he was eventually defeated and banished to the depths of Tartarus, where he continued to spew fire and smoke, causing volcanic eruptions.

 

11. Panic

ceres pan snyders rubens
Ceres and Pan by Frans Snyders and Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1620, via Museo del Prado

 

Panic can be defined as an intense feeling of sudden fear or anxiety that overwhelms an individual’s ability to think or act rationally. It is often accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and rapid heartbeat. The word derives from Pan, the god of the wild, shepherds, and fertility. He was known for having the power to strike sudden fear into those who crossed his path. This phenomenon was called πανικός. Interestingly, the word is etymologically related to pantry since Pan was also associated with food and crops invoked to protect these valuable resources.

 

12. Ostracize 

 

The word originates from the Greek practice of ostracism, which involved the banishment or exile of a citizen from a city-state for a period of ten years. Ostracize came from ὄστρᾰκον, which translates to a fragment of a vessel or potsherd; for the procedure involved a public vote, where individuals would write the name of the person to be exiled on a piece of broken pottery. As time passed, ostracize gained a broader meaning and came to be used to describe the act of excluding or shunning someone from a group or society.

 

13. Music 

john singer sargent apollo
Apollo and the Muses by John Singer Sargent, 1921, via the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

 

Originally, music stemmed from μουσική, which to any art or science that was produced under the inspiration of the Muses. The Muses were nine goddesses in Greek mythology who presided over various arts, including music, poetry, and dance. Each of the Muses had a specific domain of influence, with Calliope being the Muse of epic poetry, Erato the Muse of love poetry, and Clio the Muse of history, to name just a few. They were considered the personification of inspiration, and ancient poets and artists called on them for guidance in their work. The word muse itself has come to mean a source of creativity for artists and creative individuals.

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