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The Greeks Had a Word for It

February 3, 2021
By Basil Zafiriou

“Give me a word, any word, and I show you how the root of that word is Greek.” Anyone who has seen the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding will recall that boast by the father of the prospective bride, Gus Portokalos. Challenged to show how kimono fits his thesis, Gus Portokalos improvises: “Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ah! of course. Kimono is come from the Greek word ‘chimona’ is means winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see, robe – kimono. There you go!” One may criticize Gus Portokalos for hyperbole which is more likely to antagonize than proselyte skeptics, but then he might respond by pointing out that the words we’ve just used – criticize, hyperbole, antagonize, proselyte, skeptic – they are all derived from Greek. “So, there you go!”

Of course Gus Portokalos exaggerates. Not every English word is derived from Greek. But a good many are: an estimated one in four, including most technical and scientific terms. And had Gus Portokalos still been around and paying attention, language-related news last year would have given him much more to crow about.

On November 30, Merriam-Webster announced that its Word of the Year was pandemic, which it defined as “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affects a significant proportion of the population.” The announcement went on to explain the origins of pandemic: “The Greek roots of this word tell a clear story: ‘pan’ means ‘all’ or ‘every,’ and ‘dēmos’ means ‘people’; its literal meaning is ‘of all the people.’”

From the stem pan in pandemic, combined with other Greek roots we also get such words as panacea, pandemonium, panegyric and pantheism. From demos, we get most famously democracy, but also demagogue, demotic, demography, epidemic, endemic.

Two additional Greek words made Merriam-Webster’s top ten list of 2020: asymptomatic and icon. Asymptotic is derived from the Greek verb sympiptein, to happen, and the prefix a, meaning without. Icon is the Greek word ‘eikon’, image. It was used extensively by speakers and writers to eulogize two prominent Americans who passed away last year, Congressman John Lewis in July and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. Incidentally, eulogize is also a Greek word, composed of the prefix ‘eu’, meaning good, and logos, word.

“Sometimes a single word defines an era,” read the Merriam-Webster press release announcing pandemic as the Word of the Year 2020. If pandemic was the mot just to capture the scourge that engulfed the globe last year, what word best describes the emotional toll that scourge has taken on people? For that we must also turn to Greek, according to Jonathan Zecher, Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University. 

In an article published last August in the online journal The Conversation, Zecher offers acedia as the most apt name for “the emotion we’re all feeling right now.” The word acedia is formed by joining the negative prefix ‘a’ to the Greek noun ‘kedos’, meaning sorrow, concern or care. But acedia connotes much more than just apathy, which its etymology may suggest. Referring to the works of early monastics who experienced and wrote about acedia, Zecher sums up: “acedia arose directly out of the spatial and social constrictions that a solitary monastic life necessitates. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate. Together these make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.”

Acedia appears throughout the literature of the Middle Ages and was “a key part of the emotional vocabulary of the Byzantine Empire,” Zecher writes, but it is barely mentioned today. He believes we should revive the word. Recognising and naming previously unrecognised emotions enables us to share them and can help us cope with them.

Borrowing Greek words or, more frequently, combining Greek words to form new ones has been for centuries the common practice of naming new things or discoveries, from airplane to zincograph. Greek is uniquely suited to this purpose, owing to its immense flexibility and rich vocabulary. Discussing the legacy of Greece to the world, the classical scholar Gilbert Murray once wrote: “philologists tell us that, viewed as a specimen, [the Greek language] is in structure and growth and in power of expressing things, the most perfect language they know.”

A philologist is someone who specializes in the study of languages. The word philologist comes from the Greek roots philo/love of, and logos/word. There you go!

Basil Zafiriou is an economist based in Ottawa. Retired from the federal public service of Canada, he now concentrates his work mainly on Greek affairs and the Greek diaspora.

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