List of Greek Words in the English Language

By Michael - 4 minute read

greek-words

After French, Latin and Viking (and Old English of course, but that is English), the Greek language has contributed more words to modern English than any other – perhaps 5%.

Many Greek words sprang from Greek mythology and history. Knowing those subjects was evidence that a person was educated, so dropping a reference to Greek literature was encouraged even into the 20th century. From Greek mythology, we get words such as atlas, chaos, chronological, erotic, herculean, hypnotic, muse, nectar, promethean, and even cloth.

But most Greek-origin words in English did not come straight from ancient Greek. Many are modern, not ancient, combinations of Greek root words. For example, you probably know the telephone was not used by the ancient Greeks. But the word itself is all Greek, made up of the Greek words for “distant” and “sound.” Besides tele and phon, common Greek roots include anti, arch, auto, bio, centro, chromo, cyclo, demo, dys, eu, graph, hydro, hypo, hyper, logo, macro, mega, meta, micro, mono, paleo, para, philo, photo, poly, pro, pseudo, psycho, pyro, techno, thermo and zoo. Among others.

Comparing the original and the modern meanings of Greek words that became English words sometimes shows not only how much language has changed, but how much culture has changed.

  1. idiot
    Someone of very low intelligence. For the ancient Greeks, an idiot was a private citizen, a person not involved in civil government or politics. Related: idiosyncracy, idiom, and other individualistic words.
  2. metropolis
    The Greek roots of this word are “mother” and “city.” Socrates, convicted in court of corrupting the youth with his philosophy, was given a choice between drinking poison or exile from his mother city of Athens. He chose poison because he wasn’t an idiot, in the ancient sense. If you chose exile, you might be an idiot in the ancient sense, but you would be a live idiot.
  3. acrobat
    This circus performer who demonstrates feats of physical agility by climbing to the very top of the rope gets his name from the Greek words “high” and “walk,” with the sense of “rope dancer” and “tip-toe.”
  4. bacterium
    From a Greek word that means “stick” because under a microscope (another Greek word), some bacteria look like sticks.
  5. cemetery
    The Greek word koimeterion meant “sleeping place, dormitory.” Early Christian writers adopted the word for “burial ground,” and that’s why college students stay in the dormitory and not in the cemetery.
  6. dinosaur
    You may have heard this one before. Our word for these ancient reptiles is a modern (1841) combination of the Greek words for “terrible” and “lizard.
  7. hippopotamus
    The ancient Greeks called this large, moist African animal a hippopótamos, from the words for “horse” and “river.” In other words, river horse.
  8. rhinoceros
    Continuing our African theme, this large, dry African animal is named after the Greek words for “nose” and “horn.” Horns usually don’t grow on noses.
  9. history
    The Greek word historía meant “inquiry, record, narrative.”
  10. dialogue
    A monologue has one speaker, but a dialogue doesn’t necessarily have two speakers (that would be a “di-logue,” but there’s no such word). Dialogue comes from Greek words that mean “across-talk,” and more than two people can do that if they take turns.
  11. economy
    The Greek word for “household administration” has been expanded to mean the management of money, goods, and services for an entire community or nation. But “economical” still refers to personal thrift.
  12. metaphor
    In ancient times, this word meant “transfer” or “carrying over.” When my grandfather called my grandmother a peach, metaphorically speaking, he used a figure of speech that transferred the sweetness of the fruit to his sweet wife.
  13. planet
    The ancient Greeks get blamed for everything wrong with astronomy before the Renaissance, but they were astute enough to notice that while most stars stood still, some wandered from year to year. The word planet comes from the Greek word for “wandering.”
  14. schizophrenia
    People with this mental disorder have been described as having a “split personality,” and the name comes from Greek words for “split” and “mind.” Symptoms may include hallucinations, delusions, or disorganized speech.
  15. technology
    This word was not limited to industry or science until the mid-19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. Originally it referred to “technique” (same Greek root) or the systematic study of an art or craft – the art of grammar, at first, and later the fine arts.
  16. grammatical
    Speaking of grammar, the Ancient Greek word grammatike meant “skilled in writing.” Now it means “correct in writing.”
  17. syntax
    A combination of Ancient Greek words that mean “together” and “arrangement.” Syntax is how words are arranged together.
  18. sarcasm
    Though it was used to describe bitter sneering, the Greek word sarkazein literally meant “to cut off flesh,” which you might feel has happened to you when subjected to cutting sarcasm or critical humor.
  19. sycophant
    Not a word that I’ve ever used, but you might like it. It means “servile, self-seeking flatterer.” In ancient Greek, it meant “one who shows the fig.” That referred to an insulting hand gesture that respectable Greek politicians wouldn’t use against their opponents, but whose shameless followers could be encouraged to do so.
  20. telescope
    Another all-Greek word that wasn’t invented by the Greeks, but perhaps by the Dutch around 1600. Its roots mean “far-seeing” and Galileo Galilei was one of the first astronomers to use a telescope to see faraway things.

As you can see, Greek is deeply woven into modern English. To prove it, in the late 1950s, Greek economist Xenophon Zolotas gave two speeches in English, but using only Greek words, except for articles and prepositions. The results were rather high-sounding, but mostly comprehensible. As you become more familiar with Greek words, English will be easier to understand. And probably, more colorful.

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


Leave a comment: