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.)

The Three Hierarchs (4th century)

January 30, 2010

The main church of Skiathos is located just above the Old Port and is dedicated to the Three Hierarchs (Tris Ierarches), the three bishops that shaped much of today’s Christian church (sermons, monastic life, creed): St. Basil, St. Gregory and St. John Chrysostom.

St. Basil is the Greek equivalent to Father Christmas and belonged to a deeply religious family where several members became saints. Suffering from ill health since his youth, St. Basil was especially interested in medicine and ended up founding the first public hospital in the western world. He wrote a series of texts about the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship, a topic as important today as it was then.  For a more detailed biography, please go to his individual post.

St. Gregory was a close friend of St. Basil’s and they had been fellow students in both Constantinople and Athens, where they were educated in law, geometry, philosophy, public speech and astronomy. After years of life as a desert hermit, St. Gregory went to Constantinople, where St. Basil eventually made him the archbishop. St. Gregory is often called The Theologist, as he wrote fervent speeches against pagans and scriptures for and about the church.

St. John was a priest who was so famous for his sermons that he earned the nickname Chrysostom, the Gold Mouthed (in English Silver Tongued is probably a better translation). His religious zeal often angered the emperor, who banished him on several occasions but his popularity with the people brought him back. In the end, the emperor ostracized him once and for all and St. John spent the rest of his life in Armenia.

Because the three saints were educated men of the church they are often depicted holding the Bible in one hand. Each saint has an individual name day (Basil 1/1, Gregory 25/1, John 13/11) but when a dispute broke out between their respective followers on who was the most important in 1100, it was decided they should also have a common one on the 30th of January. The three saints are patrons of students, teachers and of all education in general.

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What is in an Accent?

January 25, 2010

Well, rather a lot actually! One tiny little accent can completely change the meaning of a word when speaking Greek. In writing, similar words are usually spelt differently but as they sound the same it is simply a matter of practice if you do not read Greek. If you DO read Greek you are very fortunate as the accent is always put on the right syllable.

Perhaps the most classic mispronunciation is the neutral, plural form of “soft”, malaka, and the word for “wanker”, malaka. Who has not heard of the poor bloke who, ambitiously, wanted to ask for Malboro Soft at the kiosk in Greek and ended up saying, Malboro, wanker? Kudos for making the effort though!

Another few examples are the following:

filaki (little kiss) – filaki (prison)

fili (kiss or tribe) – fili (female friend)

poli (town, city) – poli (much)

nero (roman emperor) – nero (water)

pote (when) – pote (never)

Greeks really appreciate it when you make an effort and will never get angry if you make a mistake. They will, however, correct you which might be a bit intimidating but is only to save you from making embarrassing mistakes. At the end of the day, who wants to say “I want the emperor Nero for my tribe” or “give me a prison”.

English does not really present this particular problem and the only similar example I can think of when writing this is how to pronounce teens and decades: thirteen and thirty, fifteen and fifty etc. Sometimes, a Greek waiter will say the bill is ‘fifteen” Euros, instead of fifteen, which sounds like fifty. Nevertheless, English presents a myriad of problems for those of us that have to learn it: why is Leicester not pronounced Lei-chest-er and how come “though”, “tough” and “through” sound so different?

All languages present various problems for the non-native speaker but remember that making an effort is always appreciated – even if you get it wrong!

Please feel free to add your own experiences/difficulties or questions about Greek!

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What Greeks Do and Do Not Want to Be Called

January 18, 2010

In every language there are words that simply cannot be translated properly. In Greek, two such words are μάγκας, mangas, and κομπλεξικός, komplexikos. Mangas comes from the Turkish word for a certain kind of soldier but has a different connotation in Greek. Here, it is an expression for a man who often is a bit of a scoundrel but at the same time is admired by men and women alike. Someone who, let’s say, drinks a lot, is a gambler and a womaniser but still is kind of cool. We can turn to celebrities to find examples – Jack Nicholson or why not Richard Burton – broodingly handsome, famous for not spitting in the glass, adored by women but definitely not guys you would bring home to meet the parents.

Komplexikos, other hand, is the man who thinks he is a mangas but really is not. In Greek-English dictionaries it is often translated pretentious, conceited, ostentatious or even inhibited. The truth is in there, somewhere, but needs further explanation. Komplexikos is the man with a chip on his shoulder, the kind of person who is quite happy to talk about what he is good at, what he has achieved or how many conquests he has made. Someone who will laugh at others but never at himself and attempts to make fun of other people to make himself look good. Someone who loves telling stories which always end with him getting the last laugh. If you have seen Alan Partridge, you will know the type.

The thing is that a komplexikos might actually be handsome, clever and successful but because he feels the need to express it he cancels it out and his efforts really make him look like, well, a wanker. You see, a mangas never really talks about him self; he simply is a mangas. This is why mangas today also describes men that do well, show decency or just are really good guys (with a twinkle in their eyes).

In Greek, a woman is rarely described as a mangas because its meaning describes traditionally male behaviour and is an entirely male word. She can, however, be komplexiki (the female form of komplexikos) and her typical conduct is making snug remarks about good looking or successful women or just trying to put other women down. Just like the male ones, she likes to point out the faults in other people, rather than looking at her own.

Unfortunately, most of us know people that fall under the komplexikos category and even more unfortunately, we can probably all be found guilty of displaying such behaviour at one point or another, perhaps when we have felt envy or jealousy. There is a catch here, which is part of why Greek is such a wonderful and philosophical language: if you claim that you are not komplexikos, then you most certainly are. Only if you admit that you sometimes are will you get one step closer to being a mangas.

Note: komplexikos is not an equivalent to the English “complex”. Complex does come from the Greek word but rather describes someone being of many layers, complicated. Suffering from an inferiority complex is closer to the Greek komplexikos.

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Body Language – Just as Important

January 11, 2010

Speaking with each other, we do not only use words and facial expressions, but also our whole body. Being a very expressive people, the Greeks use their arms and bodies all the time when talking and anyone that has been to Greece can testify to that. Body language is not a universal language, however, which sometimes gives cause for misunderstandings when Greeks and other nationalities are communicating. For example, nodding when saying yes does not always work as the Greeks have two different head nods when saying yes and no, which are quite difficult to interpret for a foreigner: “yes” is a slanting, downward nod and “no” tilts the head backwards, accompanied with lifted eyebrows. Watch out with the latter, though, as that is generally considered a very arrogant way of saying no!

Another classic is the rudest hand gesture in Greece: thrusting one’s palm towards someone’s face, emphasized further by slapping the other hand on the back of the first hand. Do not attempt doing this unless you know someone incredibly well, not even as a joke. It is much, much worse than showing one’s middle finger, for example. This particular gesture even has a name: muntza, and a verb: muntzono!

Historically, this gesture goes back to the Middle Ages when sinners and criminals would be put on a horse and then paraded around town. People would pick up mud from the ground and slap in onto the horse and the unfortunate rider, thus showing their disgust with the culprit. Sometimes, similar slaps of mud or tar would be put on the walls of brothels. Fortunately, this custom was abandoned ages ago but the hand gesture remains, signifying one’s complete and utter loathing of someone. The muntza used to cause misunderstandings between Greeks and tourists, as tourists tend to use a similar gesture when a driver lets them cross the road. Nowadays, the Greeks are used to it, though, and know it is just a sign of gratitude.

On a more positive note, if you want to show someone your appreciation for, let’s say, their food there are two nice gestures. The first is simply waving your right hand around in the air whilst smiling and the other is kissing the tops of your thumb, index finger and middle finger. Joining these three fingers symbolises the Holy Trinity and is also how the Greeks hold their fingers when making the cross sign. The Orthodox cross themselves in the opposite directions from Catholics: head, heart, right shoulder then left.

January Saints: John the Baptist (ca. 6BC – 30AD)

January 6, 2010

There are several St.  Johns in the Greek Orthodox Saints’ calendar but the most famous one is arguably John the Baptist. The Greeks usually call him Prodromos, the Forerunner, as he was the one to prepare the way and announce the coming of Christ. It is no coincidence that his name day is celebrated the day after Theofania, the Blessing of the Waters, where thousands of Greeks jump into the freezing sea to honour the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist himself!

You have probably heard the story about John the Baptist a million times but just in case, here is a short recap:

John was the son of the priest Zachariah and Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. They were an elderly, child-less couple who had given up all hopes of ever having children of their own. One day, the archangel Gabriel announced to Zachariah that they were going to have a son, but as the latter did not believe that was possible at Elizabeth’s age he openly doubted the angel. As a punishment he was struck dumb and got his speech back only after John had been born.

John the Baptist dedicated his life to God and preached the imminent arrival of Christ on the banks of the river Jordan. In icons, he is often depicted with wings, which plays on the Greek word Aggelos, angel, which really means messenger (John was, after all, a prophet). King Herod was wary of John the Baptist and saw him as somewhat of a rebel and had him arrested. At a party Herod’s niece, the beautiful Salome, asked Herod for the head of John as a prize for dancing and thus, poor John was beheaded. In icons this is illustrated by John standing next to or carrying his own head on a platter. There is often an axe on the ground or leaning against the very tree it was made from in the background.

Because of his decapitation, John the Baptist has become the saint that cures you from illnesses of the head: headaches, migraines, epilepsy, mental illness etc., as well as fevers. An old tradition also has it that he comes to the deathbeds of those who have not heard the Christian gospels and so gives them one last chance to be saved. He is also considered the patron saint of Freemasons.

The name John is IoAnnis in Greek and in everyday language it is shortened to Yannis for men and Ioanna for women. Men can also be called Prodromos after him, a name quite common on Skopelos. John the Baptist is a very important saint to the Greek Orthodox and his icon can always be found to the right of Christ on the iconostasis, the screen of icons, in churches. He is honoured on several days of the year, but the 7th of January is the “big” one, where everyone named after him will celebrate. This day is called Synaxis of John the Baptist, which basically means “the gathering of saints and angels”, because of what had happened the day before.

Some of the other days are:

June 24: his birth

August 29: his beheading

September 23: his conception

On Skiathos, there is a lovely little church dedicated to John the Baptist not far from the Kounistra Monastery. It is called O Agios IoAnnis O KryfOs, St. John the Hidden, because it is hidden away in the forest. Alexandros Papadiamantis tells us in his short story The Murderess, that this was a place you could go to pray if you had done something so terrible or had such bad thoughts that you could not go to your normal church, thus giving the name The Hidden a second meaning.

Another church is situated not far from the Old Town, or Kastro. This one is dedicated to the Beheading and has several grim icons of the moment. This is also where the old cemetery used to be. It was at this church some locals were struck and killed by lightning in the 1920’s, while celebrating John on August 29. Local lore has it that they were being disrespectful of the saint and so got their punishment.

Nowadays, many people go to visit the church of John the Baptist on Skopelos, as this is where the wedding scene in the film Mamma Mia was shot. Legend has it that the Baptist himself had chosen the spot for the church on top of a big rock in the sea; by putting his icon there, the locals were convinced this is where he wanted it to be housed.

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Theofania – an Old, Cold Tradition

January 5, 2010

Talk about a Leap of Faith! In freezing January, on the 6th to be exact, thousands of Greeks jump into the sea, cold rivers and lakes to retrieve a cross the local priest has just thrown in. Covered in goose bumps, the shivering winner brings it to the priest and receives a blessing in return. This is the day of Theofania, or Epiphany, when the Blessing of the Waters takes place all through the Orthodox world.

Christ is baptised in the river Jordan. The dove symbolises the Holy Spirit and to the left of John an axe is leaning against a tree, waiting to decapitate the Baptist.

What is really celebrated on January 6th is Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist in the river Jordan, thus the significance of the water. John the Baptist would baptise people to wash away their sins but as Christ was free of sin, the waters became blessed instead when it was his turn. Tradition also has it that this was the day of the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. January 6th is also held as the day when the three Magi visited the infant Jesus, which is why this day is also known as Epiphany, the Appearance.

The Greeks, however, call this day Theofania, which can be translated as the Manifestation or Revelation of God and stands for the moment Christ was baptised and so revealed to the world as one and the same with God. The baptism was one of the few occasions when the Holy Trinity revealed itself all together: Christ the Son, God’s Voice in Heaven and the Holy Spirit as a dove.

Another important reason to celebrate this day is that it marks the end of the dangerous twelve days of Christmas, when the evil Kallikantzari (see the article Christmas – A Dangerous Time of Joy) ascend from the depths of Earth to make life difficult for everyone.  These goblins are terrified of Holy Water and in the blessing of the waters, order is restored and the Kallikantzari retire to the underworld again. As the sea is now safe again, tradition has it that sailors can now return to their ships.

The Old Harbour, Skiathos 2009.

Sometimes the whole jumping-in-the-sea-thing goes terribly wrong and if you are in Greece on this day watch the 8 o’clock news on any channel as they usually show a few hilarious moments from the day: no one being able to find the cross, fights breaking out between the competitors or the priest simply being unable to throw the cross in.

Usually the cross is retrieved, though, and the winner goes from house to house to receive blessings and perhaps a little money. If someone knocks on your door and it turns up to be a freezing man with wet hair and a cross in his hand, give him a Euro or two – he deserves it.

On Skiathos, there is a service held at the main church of the Three Hierarchs in Skiathos Town, usually around 10, which is then followed by the Blessing of the Waters in the Old Harbour. See you there!