10 Greek Words in English (And Their Fascinating Original Meanings)

Published on
September 12, 2022
|
Updated on
September 12, 2022
|
📖
5
min read
This article may contain affiliate links
Written by
Fokion Stavrakis

By some calculations, one third of English words have Greek origins. In this article, we explain the impact of Ancient Greek on English, and look at 10 Ancient Greek words and their fascinating original meanings.

10 Greek Words in English (And Their Fascinating Original Meanings)
Table of contents

You might not know it, but when you’re speaking English, 3 out of 10 words that come out of your mouth are…actually Greek.

Or at least they can trace their origins back to Ancient Greek.

Indeed, it has been claimed that as many as 150,000 words in Modern English have their roots in the Ancient Greek language.

By some calculations, that’s 30% of the English language! 5% of these words are directly borrowed from Greek, while another 25% are borrowed indirectly, mainly through Latin. 

What’s more, according to the Greek City Times, the Guinness Book of Records ranks the Hellenic language as the richest in the world, with 5 million words and 70 million word types*!

It is exactly this variety in word types that makes a language rich (among other features). 

Let’s talk about this briefly, without getting too technical. 

Greek words consist of smaller parts and every single part has its own separate and, in most cases, unique meaning. 

These smaller parts are called prefixes (the ones that are placed at the beginning) and suffixes (the ones which are added at the end to create a new word). 

Then, of course, there are the roots, the middle parts of the words which bear the main meaning. 

In addition, there are compound words (made up of two or more main words). 

Thus, the combinations are nearly limitless. 

Here’s an example of the word telephone:

The word telephone consists of two separate word-parts: tele- and phone.

Tele (τηλε) is a prefix denoting distance. It can be found as a part of many words with Greek origin, like telescope, telegram, telegraph, Telemachus (the Odyssey hero who fought from a distance) etc.
Phone (noun) (φωνή) means voice and it is the root of this word.

The combination of these two gives the following meaning: ‘the device which carries your voice across distances’!

Without further ado, let’s examine ten of the most interesting and surprising meanings of words that are used in English and have Greek origin! You can find the Modern Greek form of the words between brackets.

Comet (κομήτης): The original word kome means hair, comet literally means long-haired (star) because of the way it looks as we look at it in the sky!

Planet (πλανήτης): It comes from the Greek verb planomai (πλανώμαι) to wander. To the ancient Greeks, planets were just wandering stars.

Schizophrenia (σχιζοφρένεια): This word consists of two parts, the word schizo (σχίζω) split and phren (φρήν) mind. The condition in which the mind is separated between two parts.

Kilometre (χιλιόμετρο): Kilo (χίλια) means 1,000 and metre (μέτρον) means measure. Pretty self-explanatory!

Utopia (ουτοπία): Based on the Greek ‘ou’ (not) and ‘topos’ (place). The place that cannot exist because it’s perfect!

Dialogue (διάλογος): From ‘dia’ (across, between) and ‘legein’ (to speak): conversation between two persons.

Panic (πανικός): From the name of the god Pan, noted for spreading terror among woodland creatures. So, whenever you feel ‘panic’, it’s the god Pan in you!

Horoscope (ωροσκόπιο): It’s made up of two words, hora (time) and skopos (observer). The actual meaning is "observing the hour" (of someone's birth).

Arachnophobia (αραχνοφοβία): From arachne (spider) and phobia (fear).

Cosmos (κόσμος): Meaning order or world. But also pertaining to beauty, improving beauty. Pythagoras was reportedly the first person to expand this to mean “universe”, suggesting that "the universe is an embodiment of order, harmony and beauty." (see also cosmetic).

As a bonus, we‘ll take a look at two major brands with Greek names:

Pepsi: It comes from the word πέψη which means digestion. Apparently, its creator called it Pepsi as he believed the drink helps with digestion!

Nike: It’s the name of the Greek goddess of victory. Quite inspired!

So, when someone asks you ‘how many languages do you speak?’, you can rightfully add ‘and a little bit of Greek!’

*Note, these 5 million and 70 million numbers have been debated extensively by linguists. They include different spellings and tenses, rather than distinct words. The “size of a language” is notoriously hard to measure. If we are talking about distinct words, by most calculations English is the richest language.