Why it’s all Greek to you and that shouldn’t be a problem
“Give me a word, any word and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek. Ok? How about arachnophobia? Αράχνη, that comes from the Greek word for spider, and φοβία is a phobia, it means fear. So fear of spiders. There you go!”
“OK Mr Portokalos. How about the word kimono?”
“Hmm, kimono, kimono, kimono…ha! Of course! Kimono comes from the Greek word himonas which means winter. So what do you wear in the winter time to stay warm? A robe! You see? Robe-kimono… there you go!”
This is Mr Portokalos’ opinion, a character playing the Greek father in Nia Vardalos’ famous film ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’. Despite Mr Portokalos’ view, not all English words have Greek roots and certainly kimono is a word of Japanese origin (it literally means ‘wearing thing’).
However, a lot of English words, especially scientific terms, very obviously have their origins in Greek. Then there are other words in English that originate from Greek, although you wouldn’t be able to tell immediately because they’ve grown deep roots into the daily usage of the English language, and in some cases they’ve changed meaning over the years.
It’s all Greek to me – am I an idiot?
Of course not! And by the way the Greeks say: ‘It’s all Chinese to me’ when they don’t get it. In Ancient Greek the word ιδιώτης (idiotis) meant a private person who remained silent and therefore could not handle public affairs because of their low intelligence. In general in Ancient Greece, anyone who didn’t present themselves in public or wasn’t eloquent enough to express themselves and take part in the current affairs was automatically considered an idiotis; a weakly presented society member, and therefore uneducated, untalented, and stupid. (Jungian Introversion perhaps wasn’t yet a concept in Ancient Athens!)
Interestingly enough, in Modern Greek the word has dropped its negative connotation and it now means just private, in the sense of: private property, private topic, matter etc.; introversion is finally accepted in Greek society! What is more interesting, though, is that in English, the meaning of the word idiot still carries its Ancient Greek meaning; a stupid person.
Well that sounds harsh – draconian almost!
Indeed, it was difficult to be successful and accepted in a society with such draconian rules. But where does draconian come from? Drakon/Draco was the first legislator of Ancient Athens. He was the first to document oral law in writing. His rules were considered too αυστηροί (afstiri; ‘austere’), and they became known as Drakonian: written by Drakon. In Modern Greek, the phrase δρακόντεια μέτρα (drakontia metra; ‘extreme measures’) is used when, for instance, extra safety measures are taken to keep someone safe; the equivalent is true in the English language. The adjective draconian is used to signify something or someone being harsh, austere, extreme etc. We then have the noun dragon from the same root: a mythical monster like a giant reptile, fire-breathing, symbolizing chaos or evil.
Where did all the fun go?
So was it all about idiots and draconian measures? No. The Greeks were going to the γυμνάσιον (yimnasion; ‘gymnasium’ or ‘gym’) as well! The noun Γυμνάσιον was used to signify the location where men trained whilst γυμνοί (yimnoi; ‘naked’). (The use of the past tense is important, because the word isn’t associated with being naked nowadays). In the English language we have the word gymnastics and gymnast arriving from the same root. And when we add music to gymnastics we get rhythmic gymnastics; from the words ρυθμός (rithmos; ‘rhythm’) and μουσική (musiki; ‘music’). Besides, all arts were inspired by the Μούσες (the Muses) and the word music reflects precisely that: music, the art of the Muse. So do musical, musician, and museum!