Greece – a Misunderstood Name

Wherever you go in the world, people tend to call the country versions of Greece. In Swedish we say Grekland, in German they say Griechenland and in French Grece. You can even go to Japan and they will say Girisha. For some mysterious reason, the Norwegians seem to be one of the few peoples in the world that have got the name right in calling the country Hellas. Because that is what it is: Hellas and nothing else!

In Greek, the country is called Ελλάδα, Ellaaaada, and the Greeks call themselves Έλληνες, Ellines, with emphasis on the first E, which is pronounced as in the name Ella. In an attempt to get the proper name out there, the Greek Coast Guard nowadays calls itself Hellenic Coast Guard and on some menus, it now says Hellenic Salad rather than Greek Salad. Generally, however, the Greeks seem to have reluctantly resigned to the fact that the rest of the world simply has got it completely wrong.

So how did this misunderstanding come about? You will be pleased to know that it is a more than two thousand year old blip! As always, there are lots of different versions to the story, but it is generally accepted that the mistake happened when some Romans met a Greek tribe that had settled in the south of Italy. Using body language and perhaps a rudimentary knowledge of each others language, the two struck a conversation. The Romans pointed at themselves and said “Romans”, much in the style of “me Tarzan, you Jane” and as the Greeks thought this was their actual name, replied with the name of their tribe, which was Grechi. The Romans did not understand this was a surname, and so started calling all Greeks Grechi, which then spread to the rest of the world in its different versions.

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3 Responses to “Greece – a Misunderstood Name”

  1. skidsy Says:

    I enjoyed reading this but always though Horiatika Salata (excuse the greeklish) meant villager/peasant salad?? So why not use this instead?

    • skiathosbooks Says:

      Hi there,
      you are absolutely right but on menus it has always said Greek Salad in English. Some taverns have tried putting Village Salad instead but nobody seems to understand that so Hellenic Salad is an attempt to make foreigners use the proper word for Greek instead. Very good point, though!

  2. knightofmathematics Says:

    Thank you very much for this enlightening post. I have just started my own personal campaign to restore the use of the name ‘Hellas’: Throughout my blog there is no mention of the words ‘Greek’ or ‘Greece’.

    I am in favour of ‘Hellas’ not only because it is the original name of this country, but also because it is so much more meaningful: Hellas = Hel + las and in hellenic Ελ + λας. Now Ελ = light and λας = stone. So Hellas means the stone of light!

    Thanks again!

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