§107. Interesting Words

There are some Greek 1st declension nouns that have entered English with only a minimum of change. Though it comes through French from Latin zona, our word zone is derived ultimately from Greek ζωνη (zōnē), “belt,” “sash,” “girdle.” The word πληθωρη (plēthōrē) meant “fullness” or “satiety”; we use its Latin adaptation plethora to describe a superabundance or excess of something—as in “Canada has had a plethora of Royal Commissions.” The shellfish κογχη (Latin concha) is the source of the English conch. The precious resin μυρρα (L myrrha[1]) was the myrrh given by the Magi to the infant Christ. And the χιμαιρα, a goat-lion-serpent monster of Homeric legend, has lent its name to the English chimera (or chimaera), a “wild fancy,” and chimeric(al), “fanciful.”

Because the Greeks began the tradition of western drama, it should be no surprise that a great many theatrical words are of Greek origin. So far, we have seen theatre (θεατρον), orchestra (ὀρχηστρα), and chorus (χορος). We could add the 1st declension noun σκηνη (skēnē), the stage building that served as the backdrop for early Attic tragedies; the Romans adapted this as scaena (not an exact transliteration), and of course the word became scene in English.[2] The area in front of the skēnē was known as the προσκηνιον (proskēnion), a word that was regularly Latinized as proscenium. The English word actor is a pure Latin agent noun (Part I, §73). The Greek word for “actor” was ὑποκριτης (hypokritēs), a 1st declension masculine noun that meant “answerer”—because the actor replied to the words of the chorus. If someone plays an actor’s role in real life, he may be considered a hypocrite.

Two common Greek nouns that generated an amazing number of English derivatives were the 1st declension χαρτης (“sheet of papyrus”) and the 2nd declension δισκος. From the first came chart, card (< L charta), charter (< L chartula), cartel (< Ital. cartello), carton, cartoon (< Ital. cartone), cartouche and cartridge (< Ital. cartoccio). From δισκος came discus, disc, disk, dish, desk, and dais.

Greek neuter nouns of the type θεατρον, κεντρον, and μετρον became theatrum, centrum, and metrum in their Latin adaptations. After French transmission, these Latin words assumed an English spelling in –re: theatre, centre, and metre. Since the time of Noah Webster’s reforms, however, the words have had an –er ending in American usage. Originally, κεντρον denoted a sharp spur or goad; it was the Greek equivalent of the Latin stimulus. From the sharp point of the compass, it acquired the force of “centre,” the only meaning that it carried in its Latin form centrum. The English word concentric (“having a centre together with”) uses the Latin prefix con- and the standard Greek adjectival suffix.

The noun ἀνθρωπος denotes a human beinglike Latin homo (cf. homo sapiens). In the long tradition of the English language, this generic concept has always been rendered by the word man—an ambiguous term, since man means also the male human being (Greek ἀνηρ, ἀνδρος; Latin vir). Quite understandably, modern feminist concerns have brought this usage into disrepute, and we are urged to replace the generic man with human (and mankind with humankind). However worthy the motive, it will be hard to purge the English language of a strong Germanic word so steeped in literary and popular tradition.

The 2nd declension noun ξενος (xenos, “stranger”) is one of the oldest and most highly charged words in the Greek language. From the time of the prehistoric Bronze Age that is reflected in the epic poems of Homer, the stranger was viewed as someone under the protection of the god Zeus, and a person who must be treated with the utmost cordiality and respect. Reverence for strangers became a central feature of the creed of hospitality that has continued to be a powerful force in Greece through some four millennia of human history. As a result of this attractive belief, the word ξενος came to mean not only “stranger,” but also “guest” and “host” (= L hospes, hospitis). The reciprocal guest-host relationship is characterized by what the Greeks still call philoxenia (“love of strangers,” “hospitality”); it is an attitude that leaves no room for xenophobia.

The word χρονος (khronos, “time”) has many English derivatives—chronic,[3] chronicle (< χρονικα), chronology, chronometer (“time-measure”), and the like. In its form and pronunciation, this Greek word was very close to the unrelated name of the god Κρονος (Kronos), father and predecessor of the Olympians Zeus, Hera, and Poseidon. Kronos, divine king of the generation of Titans, had assumed heavenly power through a singularly violent act: in league with his mother Gaia (Earth), he castrated his father Ouranos[4] (Sky), emasculating this unfortunate deity by means of a sickle. As Greek mythology evolved, Χρονος and Κρονος became confused and conflated, and the symbolic representation of Time acquired the iconography of the divine Titan. This, we think, is the origin of that wicked scythe in the hands of Father Time. He’s a Grim Reaper, indeed; any man who sees him coming would be wise to run in the opposite direction!

  1. When double rho occurred in the middle of a word, the first ρ was unaspirated and the second ρ carried a rough breathing: μυῤῥα. This combination of sounds was represented in Latin by he letters -rrh-.
  2. Our word scenario is an Italian derivative of the Latin scaenarium.
  3. The Greek adjective χρονικος is etymologically parallel to the Latin temporalis, in the sense that they both mean "pertaining to time." The English derivatives chronic and temporal are not exact synonyms, but they do retain this etymological kinship. We can find other such pairs of bilingual Greek-Latin parallels; for example, G phonic and L vocal, which both mean "pertaining to the voice." More surprising, perhaps, is the etymological kinship between G psychic and L animal (or spiritual?).
  4. As we have already seen, this Greek name was adapted in Latin as Uranus. The Roman god who was the counterpart of Kronos gave his name to another planet in our solar system-Saturnus or Saturn.


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part II - Greek Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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