To Harp, Greeks bearing gifts, a mercurial disposition, an Achilles’ heel, the Midas touch, mentor, nemesis, phobia, atlas, cereal, cloth, chronology, echo, fortune, hypnosis, jovial, martial, mnemonics, music, narcissism, panic, plutocracy, psychology, typhoon, volcano.
About ¼ of the English language has been borrowed from the Greek language. That is close to 85,000 words! Many of these English words are formed from Greek roots, stems and prefixes. Some come from myths and stories of gods and goddesses, particularly from stories from ancient Greece. Here are 25 fascinating English words with roots dating back to early Greek civilization. Perhaps you will agree with me that learning a little history behind these words helps make them easier to remember. This in turn increases the likelihood that you will understand what someone is talking about when you hear the words and you will know how to use them in daily conversation.
I am certain that after reading this article, you will be ready to use a few of these interesting words and phrases. Who knows? This article might motivate you to learn even more.
- To Harp means to keep complaining about something or someone. In Greek mythology, harpies were birds with the heads of beautiful women who were winged spirits best known for constantly stealing Phineus’ food. Harpy means that which snatches. Harpies were viewed as mean and cruel. Example of use: My boss keeps harping at me to get the accounting report done today.
- Greeks bearing gifts means someone or something that looks too good to be true. During the Trojan War, a giant horse was left at the gates of Troy. At night, Greek soldiers who were hiding in the horse jumped out and burned the city. Example of use: The new company merged and offered lots of incentives if we stayed on, but be careful of Greeks bearing gifts as the retirement plan was scaled back and the work hours increased after working there one week.
- A mercurial disposition means subject to sudden or unexpected changes in mood. Mercury is the Roman name for the Greek god, Hermes. Hermes was unpredictable. As an infant, Hermes stole the cattle of Apollo and walked them backwards up a mountain to confuse his trackers. When he was hunted down, Hermes pretended to be a frightened child. He was brought to trial before Zeus where he confessed and was granted leniency. He then gave Apollo the lyre which he invented and won him over a friend. Example of use: My co-worker had a mercurial disposition. One minute, he was positive and helpful. The next minute he was disagreeable and mean.
- An Achilles’ heel is a tragic weakness or flaw. The expression comes from Achilles, a Trojan War hero, who was dipped in the river Styx to ensure his immortality at birth. Being held by the heel, this part did not get dipped in the river and it was the one vulnerable spot on his body. He died of a wound to the heel. Example of use: Delivery a sales pitch is my Achilles’ heel so I never volunteer to give one alone.
- The Midas touch means to have good fortune in everything you do. King Midas was granted one wish. He requested that everything he touched be turned into gold. But King Midas soon learned that having this wish prevented him from doing some wonderful things like eating food and hugging his daughter. Lucky for Midas that his prayers to Dionysus were heard and he was given a remedy for his ailment. Example of use: That teacher has the Midas touch. He turns any student into one of the best.
- A mentor is an experienced and trusted advisor. Athena served as a teacher to Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Her human form was named Mentor. Example of use: A mentor can be helpful to a new employee to learn the ropes of the job.
- Nemesis means mortal enemy. If Nemesis was against you in ancient Greece, you must have done something bad to anger her. That’s because Nemesis was the god who took revenge against those who showed arrogance before the gods. Long ago, the term was used to simply mean someone who distributed fortune as it was deserved. Later on, nemesis meant someone who felt resentment towards another. Example of use: The boss of the legal department was the nemesis of the public relations department.
- Phobia means a fear of. The word phobia comes from the name Phobos, the son of the Greek god Ares. Phobos literally meant fear or terror. Example of use: Mary Ellen had a phobia about speaking English to her boss until she gained some confidence by taking an English class.
- Atlas is a book of maps from Atlas, a Titan who held the world on his shoulders. Example of use: I looked in the atlas to learn more about the European countries.
- Cereal is wheat, oat and corn from Ceres, goddess of agriculture. Example of use: The restaurant served a range of healthy cereals for breakfast.
- Cloth is fabric formed by weaving from Clotho, the Fate that spun the thread of life. Example of use: The cloth was purchased at the fabric store to make a sundress.
- Chronology is a list of events in time from Cronos, god of time. Example of use: The chronology of the company shows it began right after World War II
- Echo is a repetition of sound from Echo, a mountain nymph who talked excessively. Her voice was so lovely that she would often distract Zeus’ wife with her long, entertaining stories while Zeus would sneak away to visit the mountain nymphs. When Hera found out about her husband’s activities, she punished Echo by taking away her ability to speak, except in repetition of the words of others. Echo eventually dies and leaves her voice to haunt the earth, where it can still be heard to this day. Example of use: There was an echo in the cave when we went kayaking.
- Fortune is good luck; a chance happening from Fortuna, goddess of luck. Example of use: He has good fortune in buying lottery tickets as he has been known to win every time!
- Hypnosis is a sleeplike state from Hypnos, god of sleep who lived in a dark cave without sunlight. His home had no doors or gates so he could not be awakened. Example of use: The psychologist used hypnosis to help the victim remember the crime.
- Jovial describes good cheer from Jove, the alternate name of Jupiter. Example of use: The holiday party had a jovial atmosphere and everyone said they had a fun time.
- Martial means relating to war from Mars, god of war. Example of use: She took a martial arts class to learn some self-defense skills.
- Mnemonics is a system to improve memory from Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. Example of use: I tried to think of a mnemonic device so I could remember the names of the presidents.
- Music is the arrangement of sounds from The Muses. Example of use: I really enjoy listening to music on the way to work.
- Narcissism means excessive love of self from Narcissus a gorgeous man, half-nymph and half-god. Narcissus was so proud of his own looks that he hated anyone who dared love him. Eventually, Nemesis punished Narcissus by luring him to a pool of water where he could see his own reflection. There are two probable endings to the tale. In one version, Narcissus realizes he could never find anyone as attractive as himself so he gives kills himself. In the other version, Narcissus doesn’t realize it is an image and falls in love with the reflection, refusing to leave until he eventually dies of hunger. Example of use: We all thought the marketing intern who always talked so much about himself showed signs of narcissism.
- Panic means sudden terror from Pan. Example of use: The tornado caused the town to panic.
- Plutocracy means a government that is run by the wealthy from Pluto, god of wealth. Example of use: That country seems to have a plutocracy and it may not always represent the middle class.
- Psychology is the science of mental behavior from Psyche. Example of use: The prospective teachers needed to study educational psychology to better understand children and learning.
- Typhoon is a tropical cyclone from Typhon. Example of use: The typhoon hit the island nation but everyone was rescued on time.
- Volcano is an opening in the earth’s crust that ejects lava from Venus. Example of use: The volcano erupted and the spectators needed to quickly evacuate the area.
You can read more about English words of Greek origin, by going to this great Wikipedia Post.
And in case you missed my recent post about English words of Latin origin, you can check that out, too.
Please write to me using the comments section below and let me know if you discovered any more words and their meanings from the Greek language. Do you have a story to share about one of these words? I would enjoy hearing from you. How is your language learning coming? I would enjoy hearing from you about that, too.