Archive for February, 2010

You Already Know More Than You Think!

February 22, 2010

Just like any other language, Greek has “adopted” foreign words and made them part of everyday language! For example, we go σόππινγκ at the σούπερ μάρκετ! Many of these foreign words have been brought in by teenagers that use them as slang but there are also hundreds of words that come from Greek sailors who imported them from far-away ports all over the world: French, Spanish, English etc.

Instead of trying to remember lots of new and difficult Greek verbs, we can start off by learning a few of those “sailor-verbs” I to build our vocabulary. How about:





If you can not read Greek letters, here are the same ones with Latin letters (the accent always goes on the A in ARO)





Can you work out what they mean? They are all borrowed words from English! Just in case, this is what they mean: I park, I flirt, I shock and I test. If you speak English they are very easy to learn, which is why I like to start off with them.

The word for “I” or “self” is εγώ, egό (emphasis on the o) and we meet it in words and expressions such as “egocentric” or “he has such a big ego”. Greek has two “o’s”: ό-micron (lit. small o) which looks like this: Ο/ο, and o-mega (lit. big o) which looks like this: Ω/ω. As we are talking about ourselves we use, naturally (!), the big one when spelling the word for “I”. Thus, almost all Greek verbs used in the first person (I do, I have) end with Ω/ω (compare the verbs above).

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The Language of the Gods, part 3

February 15, 2010

So far, we have explored the words and expressions Don’t be such a Kassandra, Achilles’ Heel, Trojan Horse, Chaos, Geography, Geology, Geometry, George/Georgina, Genesis, Genitals, Generate, Progeny, Ocean, Chronic, Chronological, Aphrodisiac, Panic, Pan-flute, Fauna, Satire, Pine and Echo.

But of course there is so much more! There is a plethora (another Greek word – albeit not from mythology) of mythical origins in English expressions that are not as obvious. For example, when we say that someone is looking like he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders we are really talking of the ancient titan Atlas. Atlas was an enormous being who was forced to carry the world on his shoulders as a punishment for revolting against the gods. He lived near Gibraltar and thus gave his name to the Atlantic Ocean. Eventually he was turned into the Atlas mountain range in North Africa after he had stared into the eyes of the terrible Medusa. Medusa was a scary creature whose hair was made of snakes and anyone who looked into her eyes was turned into stone. Ring a bell? Ever heard of the expression if looks could kill…? Ancient Greek mythology is everywhere!

Another common expression is to be caught between a rock and a hard place. This expression comes from the legendary journeys of Odysseus. At one point his ship had just managed to sail past a rock where the horrible sirens lived and was then forced to navigate between two terrible sea monsters called Scylla and Charybdis. Unfortunately for the crew, the ship came a little too close tone of the monsters who devoured a few of the men but at least the rest were saved. The sirens, incidentally, have loaned their names to police forces and fire brigades all over the world as their singing could be heard from far away. The difference is, however, that today’s sirens do not involve getting eaten alive if you hear them.

For those of you interested in the arts there is a myriad of expressions derived from Greek mythology. The god Apollo was the patron of art and light and his nine daughters the Muses have given us the words music, museum and amuse. The Muses protected the arts and sciences and still today, we call someone who is a source of inspiration just that – a Muse, whether it is to do with painting, writing, music or fashion.

If money is your main goal in life you may wish to have the Midas Touch! King Midas had managed to capture a satyr and his ransom was to be granted his only desire in life: that everything he touched would turn into gold. The satyr gave him what he wished for and was thus released and Midas went back to his palace to enjoy his new talent. As tales always go, the wish turned into a curse and Midas ended up unable to eat, drink or touch another living being as everything he touched turned into the precious metal. Let the ancient myth be a lesson to us all: be careful what you wish for!

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The Language of the Gods, part 2

February 8, 2010

Having a panic attack is one of the most unpleasant experiences in life and panic often causes irrational behaviour. Ancient Greek shepherds knew this first-hand as they would sometimes see their livestock suddenly run away for no apparent reason and they explained this by saying the legendary creature Pan was approaching, thus the word panic. Pan was an ugly bugger who later, with Christianity, became the personification of the Devil: he had horns, a grinning face, a furry body and goat legs. Pan was a deity of nature and roamed the forests accompanied by crazed women and wild animals, playing the instrument he had created known as a pan-flute. Amongst his followers were also the satyrs: equally ugly, goat-legged beings whose grotesque behaviour and constant mocking of everything pure gave us the art form of satire. Similar companions were the fauns, who have given us the word fauna.

Pan and his mates were always chasing the beautiful nymphs, lovely nature spirits, who did what they could to fend them off but sometimes complied with their desires. Their many lovers gave us the word nymphomaniac but we must remember, that nymphs were generally virtuous beings. One of them was called Pithys, with whom the north wind Boreas and Pan had fallen in love. In the end, Pithys chose Pan as her lover, which angered Boreas so much that he blew her off a cliff. Mother Earth, Gaia, turned the poor nymph into a pine tree before she fell into the sea, which is why we often see these trees growing in impossible locations such as high cliffs by the sea. Here, the nymph pines for Pan but is forever tormented by the harsh north winds.

Another unfortunate nymph was Echo. She loved walking and singing through the forests but one day happened to stumble across the king of the gods Zeus, having his way with one of her friends. Echo ran away from the spot as quickly as possible and in her panic, did not watch where she was going and ran straight into the arms of Zeus’ angry wife Hera. Suspecting her husband of yet another infidelity, Hera interrogated Echo about his whereabouts but the young nymph denied having seen him for fear of upsetting the God of Gods. Hera let her go but soon found her husband and realised Echo had lied to her. As a punishment, she cursed the nymph by making her unable to say anything on her own but only repeat what other people said, thus creating an echo. If you ever shout in a valley, for example, and hear your voice again and again, remember this is not you, but poor Echo trying to communicate.

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The Language of the Gods, part 1

February 1, 2010

Greek mythology has influenced the world for millennia and much of it survives in our everyday language. For example, when someone predicts something bad (rain, failed exams, relationship break ups) we reply ¨Don’t be such a Kassandra¨. The Kassandra story goes back to Homer who tells us that Kassandra was a princess of Troy whom the god Apollo fell in love with. He gave her the power of prophecy but when she rejected him, he turned the blessing into a curse by making her prophecies incredible to anyone that heard them. When Kassandra saw what the Greeks were up to in creating the Trojan Horse no one believed her, with the fall of Troy as a tragic consequence.

¨Trojan Horse¨, incidentally, is another expression borrowed from Greek mythology. Used in computer language, it describes a virus that creeps into your system disguised as a friendly email, for example, just like the wooden horse the Greeks made the Trojans as a ¨peace offer¨. From Homer we also get the expression ¨Achilles’ Heel¨. Achilles was a young hero made immortal by his sea nymph mother who submerged him into a magic river. Because she held him by the heel this was the only body part that was not touched by the water and so, this became Achilles’ only weak spot. Today, we do not only use the expression about physical weaknesses but also about things we are touchy about or just really bad at.

The creation myths are full of names that we have borrowed into our own languages:

In the beginning was Chaos out of which Gaia, the Earth, was born. Gaia gave birth to Okeanos, the Ocean, and Uranos, the Sky and after an eternal embrace with Uranos she bore Chronos, Time. Chronos hated his father and severed the embrace between his parents by cutting off Uranos’ limb, which fell into the sea. Out of the foam that was created when it hit the surface, Aphrodite rose.

This is just a short summary of the creation myth but in it, we have a myriad of names that need attention. Chaos is the word for ¨nothing and everything¨ in Greek and we use it when describing something that is completely out of order: chaos, chaotic.

Gaia, the Earth, is called Ge in Greek and from her we have a huge amount of words and names, all to do with earth and origins: geography (charting/study of earth), geology (logic of earth), geometry (measuring of earth), George/Georgina (worker of earth/farmer), genuine (original, real), Genesis (origins), genitals (reproductive organs), generate (to create, bring forth) and progeny (offspring). The list could go on forever…

Mother Earth’s son Okeanos has given us the word for great sea, ocean and an oceanographer is someone who charts/studies the sea (compare with geography). Her husband/son Uranos still gives his name to the sky in Greek: Uranos, even though it only lives on in western languages as a planet.

Chronos is another good example of our languages’ mythological origins. Chronos means time (or year) in Greek and when we describe something in chronological order we are putting it in a certain line of events according to when they happened. If you have a chronic condition it is permanent as opposed to temporary. A chronometer is a machine that measures time.

For now, we will end with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Her name means ¨born out of foam (afros)¨ and when we speak of an aphrodisiac, we mean something that enhances our sexual desires. All thanks to Aphrodite!

Studying Greek is not just about grammar and vocabulary; it is also about mythology, history, philosophy and science. Much of it has survived in various western languages and as you learn it, you will discover how much of it you actually use on an everyday basis. If you have comments or questions about certain expressions or words, please get in touch. More about the Greek language next Monday!

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Note: I have intentionally used the Greek spelling for the names rather than the Latin (Kassandra instead of Cassandra, Chronos instead of Chronus etc.)