You know more Greek than you think!


By Aliki Ammerman


What is common between the words atmosphere, history, alphabet, idea, fame, and Pentagon?

They come from Greek.

In fact, thousands of words in the English language are of Greek origin. This is true both in everyday language and in scientific and technical terms. The numbers are actually staggering. Look at this:


üin medicine, there are more than 41,000 Greek words

üin zoology, there are more than 195,000 Greek words


The Merriam Webster Dictionary alone includes more than 40,000 Greek words, many of which are part of the daily speech of English-speaking people. Words like program, music, therapy, butter, diploma, grammar, pain, pirate, theater.

These words are direct loans to the English language from Greek. But there is another category of words, which were coined to describe new objects that were invented in the last 200 years.


You’ve got a new thing? We’ve got a name for it!

Take the important inventions of the 19th century: telephone, telegraph, phonograph, photography, electricity, stethoscope, stereoscope, anesthesia. The inventors used Greek words to describe their inventions!

This continued in the 20th century when more inventions got Greek names, including these: airplane, helicopter, microscope, telescope, periscope.

Consider the word astronaut. We did not have any astronauts until NASA sent a manned mission to the moon. Now the word is common everywhere. It was made of two Greek words astro (star) and naftis (sailor.)

What about cosmonaut? That’s Greek, too: from cosmos (world, universe) and naftis (sailor.)

So are the words automation, bathyscaphe, nanometer, and scores of others. And the practice continues.


How is this done?

Every Greek word represents a meaning. The Greek language has three different groups of words called prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Root words are basic words, which carry meaning like phos, cosmos, chronos, anthropos, etc. Together with prefixes and suffixes, which can be attached to the beginning or the end of a root word, they form an enormous pool from which new words are made.


Does the Greek language borrow words from other languages?

Yes. Greek has existed for thousands of years and has come into contact with several other cultures and languages.

Usually, the Greek language has the ability to form new words for imported foreign words through translation or description: car became “aftokínito,” the moon-landing vehicle became “selinákatos”, computer became “ipologistís.” In fact, all the words that have to do with the use of computers or the Internet have been translated into Greek words!

When translation is not possible, foreign words are Hellenized: they are given Greek endings and are treated like Greek words. One example of a Hellenized word comes from pantaloons, the original word for pants. It became in Greek “pantelóni,” and in plural “pantelónia.”

Although most foreign words can be translated into Greek, some have been imported as they are and have become part of the everyday language. Words such as coca cola, cappuccino, and sandwich, for example, have no Greek equivalent so they are used in their imported form.

Finally, there is a group of words like paparazzi, coach, score, and many more, that people prefer to use in their foreign version, even though they have a Greek equivalent.

Perhaps they think this turns them into polyglots?



Click here for an activity in forming Greek words

Print it and work on it when you can





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