12 Greek Words You Should Know

By Daniel Scocco

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)

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97 Responses to “12 Greek Words You Should Know”

  • venqax

    Oz: I think in this case the poster is using *rational* as a synonym for something akin to reasonable. Not technically correct from a psychological POV, but relatively common. So to say a phobia is, “an unreasonable fear”, meaning one that has no basis in reasonable assessment of risk, is understandable– even tho bio-instinctive reactions don’t really involve reason, either. I work in relatively scientific conditions (whatever that means) as maybe you do, and I think we have to remember that words we use in a very strict, term-of-art sense, like *rational*, also a have another life as casual vocabulary for the “regaler” folks in the world. Just sayin’

    VTA: You make a point worth weighing. While it is true that an enormous amount of English’s– and most all W Euro languages’– vocabulary has “Greek roots”, other than that the Greek language is more disimilar from than similar to any other modern language. The only living descendant of ancient Greek is modern Greek and it comprises a branch all by its lonesome in the Indo-European family. There is a lot more to language than vocabulary.

  • VTA

    I love Greek language, food, dance, culture. BUT other than some loan words and word-roots, most not commonly used (technical words, etc) I’m not aware of any language that has been influenced by Greek. It has no “descendants” or closely related languages.
    I’m mystified why many people have the contrary impression.

  • Oz Verbivore

    re: 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.”

    Pardon me, but fear is an instinctive reaction (and an emotion), so it cannot, logically, be rational.

    Therefore I regard the term “irrational fear” as tautological.

  • Mitsos

    You forgot some words:
    You should know
    “Ai Gamisou”
    “Malaka”
    Nuff said

  • Dennis Hodgson

    You could, perhaps should, have included the following: chaos, criterion, hubris, hyperbole, mentor, stigma.

  • Damian K

    I’m Greek and this is all very true…

  • Peter

    Yeah, fancy English-men permeate any discussion of the English language! I hate it when DOGMATIC francophiles try to tell me that “ahh saw eem pissing bai de weendow” (as spoken in Allo Allo) isn’t proper French, too 🙂 How dare they!

  • LX

    I am from the US and would say “much kudos”. I’ve never thought of it as a plural any more than “congradulations” (which I guess technically is a plural). Anyway, I am a bit tired of the DOGMATIC and anglophile attitudes that tend to subtly disparage US ENglish (and make false claims about it as here). They seem to permeate any discussion of the English language.

  • mubi

    this website is so good tha tit made me get hundred in my exams

  • Nausikaa

    Greek through english words??? Here you go!
    Porf. Xenophon Zolotas, Director of the Bank of Greece’s speech to the IBRD, in 1957

    “I always wished to address this Assembly in Greek, but I realized that it would have been indeed Greek to all present in this room. I found out, however, that I could make my address in Greek which would still be English to everybody. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I shall do it now, using with the exception of articles and prepositions only Greek words“

    “Kyrie,

    I eulogize the archons of the Panethnic Numismatic Thesaurus and the Ecumenical Trapeza for the orthodoxy of their axioms, methods and policies, although there is an episode of cacophony of the Trapeza with Hellas.

    With enthusiasm we dialogue and synagonize at the synods of our didymous Organizations in which polymorphous economic ideas and dogmas are analyzed and synthesized.

    Our critical problems such as the numismatic plethora generate some agony and melancholy. This phenomenon is characteristic of our epoch. But, to my thesis, we have the dynamism to program therapeutic practices as a prophylaxis from chaos and catastrophe.

    In parallel, a panethnic unhypocritical economic synergy and harmonization in a democratic climate is basic.

    I apologize for my eccentric monologue. I emphasize my eucharistia to you Kyrie, to the eugenic and generous American Ethnos and to the organizers and protagonists of this Amphictyony and the gastronomic symposia.”

  • racquel

    i wanna learn how to speak greek through english words

  • doctortrish

    One grave omission from the list is “phenomenon”, all the more so because most people confuses the plural “phenomena” with the the singular and refer to “phenomenas”. Of course, if the singular were “phenomena”, then the plural would need to be “phenomenata”. We also need to be vigilant of those who say “an anathema”.

  • Peter

    therefore the word “Ye” would have been pronounced “thee” , and “you” would have been pronounced “thou”

    No. These “y”s are not misreadings of thorns. They’ve been pronounced (approximately) “ye” and “you” since Anglo-Saxon times, when they were spelled “ge” and “eow” — those are plural. The singular forms in Old English were “þu” and “þe”, becoming “thou” and “thee” in later English, and simply falling out of fashion in the modern period in favour of the plural “you”.

  • Peter

    There’s still a letter called thorn — þ. Typesetters in English never used it, because it was obsolete long before printing was invented. It’s still used in Icelandic. (Typesetters have never used “y”, though; rather “th”. The “y” is a misreading of handwritten þ).

  • syco

    xD funny i read the words and thought it was cool cause im doing something in my english class about greek norse and roman words but honestly i spent so much time reading the coments cause they are funny and interesting that i may not complete the asignment xD

  • venqax

    Percussim:

    Yes, there once was a letter called thorn, but it looked like a P with the loop in the middle of the stem, instead of on the top. Or like a b over top a p. Early type setter did use a Y for it, since for some reason they didn’t have typeset thorns. So, yes, Ye was actually an old way to spell the or thee in print. The word Ye as in Ye Olde Whatever, should actually still be pronounced “the”.

  • jen

    i want to know how to speak in Greek and i learned from now a very few words like sighnomi means excuse me when i read a book the characters speak in Greek and i really like to expose myself to different languages when i met a people live in Greece i can speak ,freely and feel confident with my word:” learn from different culture and different languages”

  • Percussim

    This may or may not be related to Greek, but as I undertstand it there was once an old English letter called “thorn” and it looked like a “y” and was pronounced “th” – therefore the word “Ye” would have been pronounced “thee” , and “you” would have been pronounced “thou”, some of which are still used by older folk in the North of England and maybe some religious sects in America. Maybe nobody ever said “Ye” or “You” until it was mistranslated, probably in Shakespearean times and historical plays from those periods are therefore wrong when using the modern forms – just a thought

  • Percussim

    Why when something is translated are some words left in the original language? I refer specifically to hypocrite and sabbath, where the former means “actor” and the latter, “rest” – to me replacing these words with their definitions would have helped my understanding, specifically of New Testament scripture, so there must be a reason why they are left untranslated, when the rest of the document is so painstakingly worked on.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting article!!! I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for posting!!!

    P.S. Completely in agreement with Entropy!!! 🙂

  • Mina

    Indeed, “β” is always pronounced “v” in modern Greek, and Evia is indeed the island of Euboia. Funny how we Greeks sometimes have the opposite problem of anglophones studying ancient Greece in English: we have to “transcript” the English names back to Greek, and sometimes it gets confusing! But it is an asset to know Greek, when reading scientific books that are even irrelevant to Ancient Greece. I am currently reading “Second Nature” by the Nobel-prize winning neuroscientist Gerald Edelman. There is a whole section on “epistemology”, and the word “hermeneutics”. I can easily associate these terms with their Greek counterparts. Hermeneutics comes from the verb “ερμηνεύω” which means “to interpret”. The ευ here is pronounced “ev”. However in the noun “ερμηνευτική” it is pronounced “ef”. Of course in English, this also goes as a “u” sound… I guess all this is rather confusing for non-Greeks. Anyway, happy new year to all:)

  • Peter

    Except that “television” is an odd mix of Greek and Latin (just Greek would be “telescope”, but that was already taken).

    I think β is always pronounced ‘v’ in modern Greek. (I attended a lecture on the Peloponnesian War a while back given by a lecturer who largely used modern Greek pronunciation for non-Anglicized names. He mentioned some place called “Evia” several times, and it wasn’t until quite a long way into the lecture that I finally realized “Evia” was the island of Euboea. I’d never heard it pronounced that way before, and when he said something that gave away it’s location I go “oh, he must mean Euboea”…and then of course realized that modern Greeks pronounce ‘ευ’ as ‘ev’ and ‘β’ as ‘v’ and ‘οι’ as ‘ee’…so of course they call it that!)

  • Percussim

    I always thought that β was pronounced “v” only when there was two of them, as in saββatou – my happiest Greek derivation is helicopter – rotary + wing, as in pteradactyl

    Greek derived words in common use are all the ones begining with tele viz; television, telescope, telemetry, telegraph etc where the tele means “far off” or “distant” apparently from “end + perfected” which really fits the usage, I think.

  • ahmed

    Plz e-mail me some latin and greek words as applicable in English Language with there meanings!

  • Chandrashekara

    Very interesting post.
    How about “Ecology”??!!
    Derived from Greek “oikos”(=home) and “logus” (=study).

  • Peter

    I mean how you say beta was pronounced “b”, not “v”, and omicron iota (sorry, I don’t know how to change the font to greek letters) was pronounced “oi” as in “oil” instead of “ee”.

    That’s how they were pronounced by ancient Greeks.

    Some other examples are how you often see English speakers pronouncing letters like “mu” instead of “mi” or “pie” instead of “pee”.

    That’s the English pronunciation, not the Greek; i.e., English-speaking Classicists who use the reconstructed pronunciation say something more like “pee” than “pie”, when speaking Greek.

    As for your analogy of an English speaker telling a Chinese scholar of Middle English how to pronounce things, sure, is Middle English different from Modern English? Yes. But is it as foreign to a Modern English speaker as it would be to a Chinese speaker? No.

    An English-speaker uneducated in Middle English can make out some words, and guess others from context, but even those sufficiently similar to modern English wouldn’t have been pronounced the same way. The Chinese scholar can certainly educate the English speaker on how to pronounce even those words he recognizes. Even Shakespearean English (early modern) wasn’t pronounced the way people read it today (and modern readers miss many of his jokes because of the changed pronunciation).

    Whether it’s “more foreign” to him is not relevant.

  • Afro dity

    “I use to know all of the greek mythology books and their “gods” like Zeus, Hercules, etc”

    Excellent. You say you knew these gods: what did they say to you and how often did you meet?

  • George

    I mean how you say beta was pronounced “b”, not “v”, and omicron iota (sorry, I don’t know how to change the font to greek letters) was pronounced “oi” as in “oil” instead of “ee”. Some other examples are how you often see English speakers pronouncing letters like “mu” instead of “mi” or “pie” instead of “pee”. All of these examples are using pronounciations that would be more familiar to English speakers than Greek speakers.

    As for your analogy of an English speaker telling a Chinese scholar of Middle English how to pronounce things, sure, is Middle English different from Modern English? Yes. But is it as foreign to a Modern English speaker as it would be to a Chinese speaker? No.

  • Rob

    Very neat. Slowly working my way into Greek so I appreciate some of these words.

  • cindy

    I thank you Daniel for opening our minds up to all the great opinions.

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