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

So, did you know you could speak Greek? With over 150,000 words of Greek origin in English, this doesn't seem like such a crazy idea after all.

I challenge you to spend a day of your life without coming across words of Greek origin.

Start with a filling breakfast of marmalade on freshly toasted bread, listening to music and talking on the phone. Arrange to meet with friends later at the cinema. Or is it the theater that you prefer? Your favorite thespian will be there. Get angry with politicians on TV and their sycophantic narcissism. With all this Trump-mania, has democracy gone completely mad? You head out to do some shopping. You are in a state of frenzy and need some fresh air. Buy cosmetics and expensive bracelets, not plastic imitations. Stop for a light lunch. A salad of rice, tuna and olives. You are taking care of your physique, after all. Realize, in a state of panic, that you’ve missed the cinema. Stay home and watch your favorite dramas.

With over 150,000 English words of Greek origin (according to Greek academic and linguist Aristidis Konstantinidis) I could go on and on, but the following are some of my favorites:

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, almost on tiptoe.

Cemetery

It took me some time to realize that this word comes from Greek. A lot of words disguise themselves as Old French or Latin but cemetery in fact comes from the word koimame (κοιμάμαι, "to sleep") which is also the root of the Greek word koimitirion (κοιμητήριο, "dormitory"). A cemetery is a dormitory for the dead!

Cynicism

Cynicism comes from the Cynics, a school of Ancient Greek philosophers. But the name probably derives from a public gymnasium called Cynosarges (white dog or swift dog, according to others), where one of Socrates’ pupils taught. 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 gymnasium was later built.

Democracy

Everyone’s favorite word, democracy — from demos (δήμος, "people") and kratos (κράτος, "power") — is simply put: Power to the People!

Dinosaur

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of a dinosaur? According to Greek, a dinosaur is a bad lizard from deinos (δεινός, "terrible") and savra (σαύρα, "lizard").

Europe

According to Ancient Greek mythology, Europe was a mythological princess, with big, beautiful eyes from evrys (ευρύς, "broad") and ops (ωψ, "eye"). Zeus fell in love with her and, to approach her, he transformed himself into a white bull. Europe sat on the bull and was taken on a faraway trip to what is today Europe. If you have just come back from Greece you may have this little piece of mythology lying somewhere in your wallet, as the story of Europe and the bull is depicted on the Greek 2-Euro coin.

Galaxy

Galaxy, a.k.a. Milky Way comes from the Greek word for milk, gala (γάλα). According to Ancient Greek mythology , the Milky Way was created by baby Heracles, son of Zeus, when he tried to suckle 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 the milk to spurt into the universe.

Hermaphrodite

Another one from the crazy Ancient Greeks, Hermaphrodite was the son of Gods Hermes and Aphrodite. As the most handsome man in the word, he became the object of affection of nymph Salmacis who prayed to the Gods that they stay together forever. The Gods heard her prayer and joined the two in one body.

Marathon

A marathon is a long-distance footrace and there are thousands of marathons taking 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 the cities of Marathon and Athens. Legend has it that in 490 B.C. Phidippides ran all the way to Athens from a battlefield in Marathon to announce to the world that the Persians had been defeated at the Battle of Marathon. After his victorious announcement, he collapsed and died. In 2010, Greece celebrated the battle’s 2,500 year jubilee with, what else… a marathon.

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") or sweet apple/fruit. Another source says that Ancient Greeks liked cooking quinces, which are known in Portuguese as marmelos, with honey.

Melancholy

For a word that is used so often in English, it has a somewhat bizarre etymology. It comes from the Greek words melas (μέλας, "black") and khole (χολή, bile), as it was once believed that when you are feeling gloomy and melancholic, your spleen produces an excess of black bile.

Music

Music means art of the Muses, the Muses being nine goddesses who presided over the arts and the sciences. A museum was originally a shrine for the Muses.

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. A nymph, who fell passionately in love with him, withered away into nothingness when he ignored her and the only thing that was left of her was her voice. Her name was Echo.

Panic

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

Phobia

Another word that means terror, a phobia is an irrational fear and there are many strange phobias today which derive from Greek, e.g. paraskevidekatriaphobia is the irrational fear of Friday the thirteenth, arachibutyrophobia is the fear of having peanut butter stuck to your palate and myrmecophobia is the fear of ants.

Planet

One of my favorites, planet comes from the Greek verb planomai (πλανώμαι) which means to wander. To the Ancient Greeks, planets were wandering stars.

Sarcasm

Sarcasm comes from the word sarx (σάρξ) for flesh and it describes the act of stripping off someone’s flesh, metaphorically at least, with a sneering comment.

Schizophrenia

From the Greek words schizein (σχίζειν, "to split") and phren (φρην, "mind"), it is pretty self-explanatory.

Sycophant

Unfortunately, the origin of this word is a bit obscure and no one knows for sure where the word comes from but one story we were told as school children is that sycophant comes from the word syko (σύκο, "fig") and the verb phainein (φαίνειν, "to show") and it all goes back to a time when stealing and exporting figs was a crime. People who informed on those breaking such odious law were called sycophants. The meaning of the word has changed a lot since then of course and it has now come to mean an insincere flatterer.

Tele + word

Words that start with tele denote distance. A telephone is a voice from afar, a telescope gives you the ability to see in the distance, a telegraph enables you to write from a distance.

Thespian

Thespian is a fancy word for actor, especially a theater actor, but the name comes after 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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