12 Greek Words You Should Know

By Daniel Scocco - 4 minute read

greek wordsAlong with Latin, Greek is probably the language that most influenced other languages around the world. Many English words derive directly from Greek ones, and knowing their origin and meaning is important.

Below you will find 12 Greek words that are commonly used in our society. The next time you hear someone saying “Kudos to you,” you will know where it comes from.

1. Acme

The highest point of a structure. The peak or zenith of something. One could say that Rome reached the acme of its power on 117 AD, under the rule of Trajan.

The acme of modular, factory-built, passively safe reactor design, however, is found in South Africa. People there have been experimenting with so-called pebble-bed reactors for decades. (The Economist)

2. Acropolis

Acro means edge or extremity, while polis means city. Acropolis, therefore, refers to cities that were built with security purposes in mind. The word Acropolis is commonly associated with Greece’s capital Athens, although it can refer to any citadel, including Rome and Jerusalem.

The Beijing Olympics torch relay reached the ancient Acropolis in Athens on Saturday amid heavy police security and brief demonstrations by small groups of protesters. (New York Times)

3. Agora

The Agora was an open market place, present in most cities of the ancient Greece. Today the term can be used to express any type of open assembly or congregation.

The most characteristic feature of each settlement, regardless of its size, was a plaza—an open space that acted as a cemetery and may have been a marketplace. It was also, the archaeologists suspect, a place of political assembly, just as the agora in an ancient Greek city was both marketplace and legislature. (The Economist)

4. Anathema

Anathema is a noun and it means a formal ban, curse or excommunication. It can also refer to someone or something extremely negative, disliked or damned. Curiously enough, the original Greek meaning for this word was “something offered to the gods.”

Some thinkers argue that while collaboration may work for an online encyclopedia, it’s anathema to original works of art or scholarship, both of which require a point of view and an authorial voice. (USA Today)

5. Anemia

Anemia refers to a condition characterized by a qualitative or quantitative deficiency of the red blood cells (or of the hemoglobin). Over the years, however, the term started to appear in other contexts, referring to any deficiency that lies at the core of a system or organization.

In comments to the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher, the lone dissenter in last week’s decision to keep the federal funds target at 2%, said the U.S. faces “a sustained period of anemia” and that “in the second half of this year we will broach zero growth.” Last week Fisher wanted higher rates, his fifth-straight dissent in favor of tighter policy. (The Wall Street Journal)

6. Ethos

Translated literally from the Greek, ethos means “accustomed place.” It refers to a disposition or characteristics peculiar to a specific person, culture or movement. Synonyms include mentality, mindset and values.

Consumerism needs this infantilist ethos because it favors laxity and leisure over discipline and denial, values childish impetuosity and juvenile narcissism over adult order and enlightened self-interest, and prefers consumption-directed play to spontaneous recreation. (Los Angeles Times)

7. Dogma

Dogma refers to the established belief or set of principles held by a religion, ideology or by any organization. Dogmas are also authoritative and undisputed. Outside of the religious context, therefore, the term tends to carry a negative connotation. Notice that the plural is either dogmata or dogmas.

It’s not a new type of web, it’s just where the web has got to – it’s also a terrific excuse for much chatter on the blogging circuit, and a huge amount of dogmatism. (Financial Times)

8. Eureka

The exclamation Eureka is used to celebrate a discovery, and it can be translated to “I have found!”. It is attributed to the famous Greek mathematician Archimedes. While taking a bath, he suddenly realized that the water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. He got so excited with the discovery that he left his home and started to run and shout “Eureka!” through the streets of Syracuse.

Those eureka moments in the shower or on the bus when something suddenly starts to make sense only happen if you keep plugging away. (The Guardian)

9. Genesis

Genesis means birth or origin. There are many synonyms for this word, including beginning, onset, start, spring, dawn and commencement. Genesis is also the name of the first book of the Bible.

And when Mr McCain headed to the safe shoals of policy wonkery, Mr Obama flayed his idea of calling for a commission to investigate the genesis of the financial crisis as the resort of politicians who don’t know what else to do. (The Economist)

10. Phobia

Many people wrongly think that a phobia is a fear. In reality it is more than that. Phobia is an irrational and exaggerated fear of something. The fear can be associated with certain activities, situations, things or people.

Poorer communities have a phobia of undercooked food. Very advanced societies enjoy their fish and meat either raw or very close to it. To the French their idea of cooking a steak is so perfunctory one might as well hack the thing off the cow and tuck in. (Financial Times)

11. Plethora

You have a plethora when you go beyond what is needed or appropriate. It represents an excess or undesired abundance.

In California, for example, some neighborhoods have been blighted by the plethora of empty homes. Joe Minnis, a real estate agent for Prudential California, knows foreclosed homes in San Bernardino that have been systematically stripped, trashed and tagged by gang members. (Business Week)

12. Kudos

Kudos means fame or glory, usually resulting from an important act or achievement. It is interesting to notice that in Greek and in the Standard British English, Kudos is a singular noun. Inside the United States, however, it is often used in a plural form (e.g., You deserve many kudos for this accomplishment!)

They deserve the kudos because they could be deemed responsible for the marked improvement in the commercials during Super Bowl XL last night. (New York Times)

Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.

Recommended Articles for You


100 Responses to “12 Greek Words You Should Know”

  • mmhan

    this is off-topic. But did i see a resemblance of something in that picture? 😀

  • Maeve

    Daniel,
    Cool post.

  • TMG

    Great ~ thanks for posting!

  • Petter

    Hahaha, the penis army strikes with their greek expressions!

  • whorfin

    mmhan, are you referring to the phallic shape of the helmet? If so, then yes, you were the only one to notice.

  • Patrick

    Interestingly if you take number 3 (Agora) and number 10 (phobia) you get “Agoraphobia”, literally the “fear of the marketplace”. Or more commonly, fear of crowds or groups of people.

  • Kurt S

    @mmhan-you have a dirty mind…..but I saw it too so I shouldn’t talk lol

  • subcorpus

    good post …
    subcribing now …

  • Achilles

    How can this list not include “kleos”?!?

  • jared

    informative 😉
    esp for usage

  • BobCFC

    Great stuff, I’m glad I found your site.

    How do we pronounce no.1? Ac-me or A-cam?

  • kidsAfoodSource

    Ummm I am not sure how any of these are really “geek words”.

    As a geek… let me help you out…

    Crapplet, Decaflon, Egosurfing, Grantartica, Hipatitis, Nyetscape, Treeware, Assmosis, Beepilepsy, Bozone, Chips and Salsa.

    There are a few to get you started.

    As a rule… None Geeks should not comment on the geek culture.

  • Symeon

    Good article, Daniel. Regarding #2, however:

    – “Acro” (“Akri” in Greeek) doesn’t mean high, but “edge”. Consequently:

    – Acropolis does not refer to cities that were built on elevated grounds. Athens is not only not built on evevated grounds but, in fact, in a basin. “Acropolis” means “city edge”. The highest point being one of the edges, and the best spot to defend against attackers, “Acropolis” refers to the defensive structure where the citizens would go to if the city was attacked. Consequently:

    – The word Acropolis is not commonly associated with Greece’s capital Athens, but the defensive structure of the Acropolis in its centre. And yes, it’s a generic term that can refer to any structure appropriate for defense/resistance within a city.

  • Daniel Scocco

    @achilles, I believe kleos is a bit less used than the 12 words on the list.

    @kidsAfoodSource, you say “As a rule… None Geeks should not comment on the geek culture.”

    You got be kidding me :)?

    @Symeon, you are correct, I will correct the article.

  • Copywriters Needed/ No Experience Required- $200/hr

    I use to study greek in college and always found their religion and culture quite fascinating. I use to know all of the greek mythology books and their “gods” like Zeus, Hercules, etc. That was some food for thought about the greek words.. thanks.

  • Bri

    @ Kidsafoodsource: Perhaps you misread “gReek” for “geek” and I assume you skipped over the intro ??

  • SheGoddess

    Fun post. How about thanatos?

  • zulubanshee

    One very apropos word for out times was left off: hybris.

  • DC MATTHEWS

    I’LL JUST STICK WITH ” ITS ALL GREEK TO ME.” (LOL)

  • keltickal

    How about apocalypse? The word in Greek means revelation but it has much a greater and terrible meaning in the Christian tradition.

  • Jason King

    Thanks for the writing tips. Geeks bearing gifts?

  • design

    Would you say I have a plethora of pinatas??

  • Squeedle

    Don’t forget “myriad,” meaning literally ten thousand, but in common use just means “a metric buttload,” or the equivalent 🙂

  • MissLiberty

    Was surprised I knew most of them! thanks!

  • Ibod Catooga

    My girlfriend sure does love Greek.

  • Yorkali

    that Obama bit is incorrect. It was McCain that called for the commision.

  • temp-

    just posting to thank you guys

  • Dave

    What a real delight it is looking at a group of cretins displaying their ignorance. How anyone can actually sign a name to a comment as dribblingly banal and pointless as “it’s all greek to me” defies belief. I have a kitchen timer which is probably more intelligent than he is. And what a joy to see Kidsafoodsource grappling with words of more than 2 syllables, making a brave attempt to spell “non” and only getting one letter wrong. As for “my girlfriend sure does love Greek” – are we supposed to be in awe of this dibblebrain? Am I to be impressed that he actually has a girlfriend? or that he actually has a penis? I despair.

    What we need is a cull.

    pip pip

  • Mina

    Nice post! However these are not the most frequent Greek words in common use in the English language… most people don’t realise that words like music, rhythm and economy for example are 100% Greek.
    Kudos surprised me… I’m Greek, and I can’t quite match it to its Greek equivalent! Are you sure it’s Greek? Do we have any etymology details?

    Glad I found this site, it’s really useful:-)

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Mina, I think we need to draw a line between Greek words and English words that derive from Greek.

    For example plethora is essentially a Greek word, though in Greek it was spelled plethore if I am not wrong.

    Economy, however, is an English word (we can see that by the spelling) that has its origins on the Greek oikonomos.

    Consequently, including those English words that have a Greek origin would not be that useful. I am sure pretty much every one knows the meaning of music, rhythm or economy 🙂 .

    As for the etymology of Kudos, I believe it comes from the Greek word kyddos, which means glory and fame.

  • Mina

    OK, understood, as economy in Greek is oikonomia, rhythm is rhythmos, music is musiki, so I get your point:-)

    However, plethora is indeed plethora (in modern Greek), but it does not necessarily mean “too” much, undesired abundance; just abundance, whether desired or not…

    I checked kudos on the Internet, it is indeed Greek, however ancient… (it’s been years since I finished high school, so I don’t remember much…)

    Check out http://www.lexilogia.gr and http://www.translatum.gr/forum, you may find them interesting;-)

  • Alina

    I liked the article, but I have to say that we can’t have the exast translation (or meaning) of any word cause actually one word has 2-3 meanings in one language. People just pick one and say it’s the right one…
    I speak Greek and Russian (they’re my “first” languages) and I believe that you should know thow the language to say just anything about its words.

    ps: oikonomia (“economics” in Greek) sounds like “ee-ko-no-mee-ah” with the stress on “mee”.
    and “etymology” is also Greek)

  • Alina

    *know the language*
    oops….a mistake)

  • Entropy

    In response to ‘Dave’ —

    What a real delight it is to witness such a blatant overcompensation for what must be a completely underdeveloped personality. The comments that you so scurrilously point out seem to be more appropriate than your demeaning self-indulgence. You do, however, manage to illustrate the defining characteristics of an asshole. What we need is a cull, indeed!

    Bravo!

  • Daniel Scocco

    @Aline

    You said:

    “I liked the article, but I have to say that we can’t have the exast translation (or meaning) of any word cause actually one word has 2-3 meanings in one language. People just pick one and say it’s the right one…”

    Well I don’t agree with that. Languages borrow words from other languages all the time. It is the common usage that will determine what meaning it will have, regardless of how many meanings it had on its original language.

    You are assuming that languages are something static, but in reality they are dynamic, they evolve all the time, and it is how people use them that will determine in what direction they will evolve.

  • Peter

    “Acro” (”Akri” in Greeek) doesn’t mean high, but “edge”. Consequently:

    Well, actually, highest point, peak, top, extreme; and akro- is correct in ancient Greek (are you a modern Greek speaker?); e.g., Liddell-Scott gives: ἀκρόλις, -εως, ἡ the upper or higher city, hence the citadel, castle, Lat. arx, …

    As for the etymology of Kudos, I believe it comes from the Greek word kyddos, which means glory and fame.

    Only one “d”; long “u”: κῦδος (a neuter noun meaning “glory, fame”); distinguished from κύδος (a masculine noun meaning “reproach, abuse”)

    we can’t have the exast translation (or meaning) of any word cause actually one word has 2-3 meanings in one language. People just pick one and say it’s the right one

    Well, it’s the right one in English; what it means in modern Greek isn’t really relevant (and may be different from what it meant in ancient Greek, too). Sometimes English words borrowed from other languages have a meaning completely different to that in the language it’s borrowed from.

    ps: oikonomia (”economics” in Greek) sounds like “ee-ko-no-mee-ah” with the stress on “mee”
    Modern Greek has lost the vowel distinction, but the initial syllable was more like the “oi” in “oil” in ancient Greek, and it had a tone accent, like modern Japanese, not stress.

  • Peter

    Bah. Of course, Liddell-Scott doesn’t misspell it ἀκρόλις, it spells it correctly: ἀκρόπολις!

  • Alina

    to Peter:
    are you Greek?
    well, I am. Stresses are still important. Wrong stress – wrong word. (άλλα and αλλά are two different words)
    In schools Greeks learn the Ancient Greek language and the modern Greek, so I am sure in what I’ve said and I didn’t mean to confuse you.

  • Peter

    Alina: no, I’m not Greek. I study Greek and Latin. I mean ancient Greek, not modern, of course; I don’t know much at all about the modern language, but I know there have in the past been “political” arguments between Greek speakers and scholars about the pronunciation of ancient Greek, with a group of Greek speakers insisting that the modern pronunciation is pretty much how it’s always been pronounced – linguistic studies disagree, and I think that argument ended a long time ago, but I don’t know what pronunciation of ancient Greek is taught in Greek schools (e.g., in ancient Greek, β was pronounced like “b”, not “v” as in modern Greek, and the vowels were all distinct). I’m not denying that accent is important in distinguishing the meaning of words, but ancient Greek used a tone accent rather than stress – the three accent marks introduced in Byzantine writing ~600AD (´ vs. ῀ vs. `) originally denoted a rising tone over the syllable vs. rising-and-falling on the same syllable vs. something else (it’s not entirely clear what ` sounded like), although the tone accent had apparently been lost already (replaced with stress accent that doesn’t distinguish between the three different accent marks) by that time. (Most modern learners of the ancient language are told to use a stress accent, too)
    FWIW, there are some recordings of fragments of ancient Greek being read in the restored pronunciation here: http://www.rhapsodes.fll.vt.edu/Greek.htm.

  • Peter

    Alina: no, I’m not Greek. I study Greek and Latin – I mean ancient Greek, not modern, of course; I don’t know much at all about the modern language, but I know there have in the past been “political” arguments between Greek speakers and scholars about the pronunciation of ancient Greek, with a group of Greek speakers
    insisting that the modern pronunciation is pretty much how it’s always been pronounced – linguistic studies disagree, and I think that argument ended a long time ago, but I don’t know what pronunciation of ancient Greek is taught in Greek schools (e.g., in ancient Greek, β was pronounced like “b”, not “v” as in modern
    Greek, and the vowels were all distinct). I’m not denying that accent is important in distinguishing the meaning of words, but ancient Greek used a tone accent rather than stress – the three accent marks introduced in Byzantine writing ~600AD (´ vs. ῀ vs. `) originally denoted a rising tone over the syllable vs. rising-and-falling on the same syllable vs. something else (it’s not entirely clear what ` sounded like), although the tone accent had apparently been lost already (replaced with stress accent that doesn’t distinguish between the three different accent marks) by that time. (Most modern learners of the ancient language are told to use a stress accent, too, BTW)
    FWIW, there are some recordings of fragments of ancient Greek being read in the
    restored ancient pronunciation here: http://www.rhapsodes.fll.vt.edu/Greek.htm.

  • samantha

    Good job1 But but next time you should put Greek words on that are commonly used today in our overy day English; Their origin, Meaning, and how they relate

  • John Neos

    Hello friends.
    My name is John Neos. I have an interest in etymology and i’ve created a blog entitled “English words of no Apparent Greek Origin” [http://ewonago.blogspot.com/].
    There you can find the etymology of words like parliament, sincere, vow, library, mortality, stop, script, Santa Claus, clerk, bomb, buffalo, alms, almond, etc. All of them have a Greek etymon, a Greek root.
    In each post, you can also find Greek words related to the etymon, so you can learn them easily.
    Send me your comments.
    Best regards.
    John

  • Nabis

    It is interesting how 12 greek words can create a heated debate with a lot of nonsense too.

    To ignorant people, Greek seems a language that is old and intimidating but the reality is not so hard to grasp. The English language has a huge debt to Greek (inc.Latin) – as many of the words are either directly or indirectly derived from Greek words.

    Many English playwrites and scholars can state the beauty of the English Language in comparison to other modern languages but without Greek grammar and words – it would be very different indeed.

    Ellinika yia olous opious eiste!!!

    Nabis
    In honour of Lakonia

  • Camille

    This is quite a fun list. I was a bit surprised to see ethos but not it’s usual partners logos and pathos. Those guys are important too.
    I was thinking the list was going to be more about etymology, like maybe “demos – people Ex: democracy, demographics” but this is cool too. I studied Latin for 3 years so I’m quite into etymology.

  • Zan

    ah. the consequences of free speech in the internet… so tat ppl of all sorts, even spellin’ uptights, etc, wans to magnify & miss the pt of this colum… To Alina: ‘gnwthi ton dialekton’ is what u wanna say, yes? To Peter: so the marks are given only from 600AD? that makes their presence very suspicious in the milenia BEFORE then, wouldn’t it?…

  • Peter

    that makes their presence very suspicious in the milenia BEFORE then, wouldn’t it?

    I don’t know the exact year they were introduced, of course; I’m not saying it was 600AD and not 599AD…actually, Mastronarde says “the practice of marking accents was initiated by literary scholars in Alexandria ca. 200 B.C.E. […] In the ninth century C.E. Byzantine scholars modified the accent-marking system, producing the conventions we now follow.” So: the modern system is a few hundred years later than I thought, but there were some sort of accent marks in the Hellenistic period, which I didn’t know (didn’t remember; I must have read that passage in Mastronarde before)

  • rosie

    Hi you can relly use this website it is sos cool and also a great use of your time you also get to understand what every prefix means in greek in its own special way

  • malignedtruth

    There is a plethora of comments, thusly contributing to the anemia of the discussion!

  • Mahendra de Silva

    I am from Sri Lanka (that little island off the tip of S.India). My mother tongue is Sinhala. This belongs to the Indo-Aryan language basket. North Indian settlers introduced this language around 6-5 centuries B.C.E.

    The commonly used Sinhala word for cow/bull is “harakka”
    This word has no roots in Sanskrit, Bengali or Pali the North Indian languages that have nourished Sinhala. (The word “gava” which is of N.Indian origin is used in more refined Sinhala for cow/bull.

    Records show that there was a Greek Quarter in the ancient Sri Lanka capital Anuradhapura.

    Can you enlighten me whether “harakka’ is an old Greek word for cow/bull

    Thank you

  • lejski3

    Wot a gr8 site! As a monoglot English-speaking proud Welshman, [spot the contradiction?], I am eager to learn from all u clever academics out there, especially the arse-clenching snobs who give me the biggest laughs. Carry on writing please, as Sid James might have sed. [i spels good reely I just wated to join in the fun!].

Leave a comment: