21 English Words That Are Actually Greek (And The Stories Behind Them)

Did you know you can already speak Greek? With over 150,000 words of Greek origin used in modern English, this doesn’t sound like such a crazy idea after all.
May 2, 2017
21 English Words That Are Actually Greek (And The Stories Behind Them)

In the English-speaking world, it’s impossible to go a day without coming across at least one word of Greek origin. From the marmalade adorning our morning toasts, to the music we play and the dramas we watch at the cinema, the Ancient Greeks have thoroughly infiltrated the modern English we speak today. With over 150,000 examples to point at, a comprehensive list of all the Greek words used in English would stretch on into infinity, so we’ve collected some of our favorites here. Enjoy!

21. Acrobat

From the word akri (άκρη — “tip” or “edge”) and the verb vaino (βαίνω — “to walk”), an acrobat is someone who walks on the edge, often on tiptoe.

20. Cemetery

A lot of Greek words used in English like to disguise themselves as Old French or Latin. Don’t let looks deceive you, though: This example actually comes from the Greek word koimame (κοιμάμαι — “to sleep”), which is also the root of another word, koimitirion (κοιμητήριο — “dormitory”). Is it creepy, then, that we call our final places of rest dormitories for the dead? Perhaps.

19. Cynicism

Cynicism comes from the Cynics, a school of Ancient Greek philosophers. Their namesake is probably derived from a public gymnasium (school) where one of Socrates’s pupils taught called Cynosarges (“white dog” or “swift dog,” depending on who you ask). According to one myth, the Athenians were in the middle of making an offering to Heracles when a dog snatched the animal and deposited it near the location where the school was later built.

18. Democracy

Ahh, good old democracy. Combining demos (δήμος — “people”) and kratos (κράτος — “power”), the meaning of this quintessential Greek word used in English is simply put: power to the people!

17. Dinosaur

How would you describe a dinosaur? If you came up with something similar to “fear-inspiring reptile,” congratulations. The name we use to call these magnificent, ancient creatures comes from the Greek words deinos (δεινός — “terrible”) and savra (σαύρα — “lizard”).

16. Europe

According to Ancient Greek mythology, Europe was a mythological princess with big, beautiful eyes, a trait reflected in the very origins of her name: evrys (ευρύς — “broad”) and ops (ωψ — “eye”). When the god Zeus laid his own eyes on her, it was love at first sight. He quickly transformed himself into a white bull and spirited her off to the faraway lands we now call Europe. If you’re there right now, check your wallet for some change — Greece has since immortalized the story on its national version of the 2 euro coin.

15. Galaxy

Now that we’re on the subject, many Greek words used in English have mythological origins. Galaxy, a.k.a. the Milky Way, comes from the Greek word for milk, gala (γάλα). According to one myth, the Milky Way was created by Zeus’s baby son, Heracles, after he tried suckling on his step-mother’s milk while she slept. When Hera woke up to discover that she was breastfeeding an infant that was not her own, she pushed the child away, causing her milk to spurt into the universe.

14. Hermaphrodite

Speaking of gods, Hermaphrodite was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, who apparently couldn’t be bothered with finding a new name for their child. As the most handsome man in the word, Hermaphrodite became an object of affection for the nymph Salmacis. After wishing for eternal love, the gods answered her prayers by joining the two lovers in one body.

13. Marathon

Thousands of long-distance footraces take place every year around the world. Officially, a marathon is 42.1 km (or 26.1 miles) long, in a nod to the actual distance between two Greek cities. Legend has it that in 490 B.C., Pheidippides ran all the way to Athens from a battlefield in Marathon to announce to the world that the Persians had been defeated at the aptly-named Battle of Marathon. After his victorious announcement, he collapsed and died. In 2010, Greece celebrated the battle’s 2,500 year jubilee with — you guessed it — a marathon.

12. Marmalade

Although dictionaries will tell you that the word comes from Portuguese, it in fact comes from the Greek words meli (μέλι — “honey”) and milo (μήλο — “apple”). Some sources say that the Ancient Greeks liked cooking quinces (marmelos in Portuguese) with honey.

11. Melancholy

This common Greek word used in English has a somewhat bizarre etymology. Coming from the Greek words melas (μέλας — “black”) and khole (χολή — bile), it was once thought that when your spleen produces an excess of black bile, you feel gloomy. This belief is rooted in the Ancient Greek school of medicine called humorism, which hypothesized that body fluids (“humors”) directly influenced a person’s mood.

10. Music

Music literally means art of the Muses, the nine Greek goddesses who presided over the arts and sciences. The concept of a museum was originally intended to be a shrine for the Muses.

9. Narcissism

Narcissism comes from the Ancient Greek mythological figure of Narcissus, a young man who fell in love with himself when he saw his reflection in a lake. One nymph who fell passionately in love with him withered away into nothingness when he ignored her, leaving no trace behind but her voice. Her name was Echo.

8. Panic

The word panic comes from the name of the Ancient Greek goat-god Pan, who spread terror among nymphs like Echo.

7. Phobia

Coming from another word for terror, a phobia is an irrational fear — and there are many strange phobias with names also derived from Greek. Paraskevidekatriaphobia is to be frightened of Friday the 13th, arachibutyrophobia is to worry about getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth and myrmecophobia is the fear of ants.

6. Planet

Planet comes from the Greek verb planomai (πλανώμαι), which means “to wander.” To the Ancient Greeks, planets were simply wandering stars.

5. Sarcasm

From the Greek word for flesh, sarx (σάρξ), sarcasm describes the (metaphorical) act of stripping someone’s flesh off with a sneering comment.

4. Schizophrenia

Combining the words schizein (σχίζειν — “to split”) and phren (φρην — “mind”), the meaning of this particular Greek word used in English is pretty self-explanatory.

3. Sycophant

Unfortunately, the origin of this example is a bit obscure, as no one knows for sure where it comes from. One story ties it to the word syko (σύκο — “fig”) and the verb phainein (φαίνειν — “to show”), back when stealing and exporting figs was considered a crime. People who informed on those breaking this particular law were called sycophants. Of course, the meaning of the word has changed a lot since then — it now gives name to insincere flatterers.

2. Tele + word

There are scores of Greek words used in English that start with tele, a prefix denoting distance. A telephone carries your voice across distances, a telescope helps you see far-off places and a telegraph lets you send long-distance messages.

1. Thespian

Thespian is a fancy word for actor, especially a theater actor. The name comes from Thespis himself, a 6th century B.C. Ancient Greek poet who was said to be the first person to ever appear on a stage as an actor.

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