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It's All Greek To Me: 10 Greek-Derived English Words

Written by Aakanksha Gupta (Weloquent)

Give me a word, any word. And I'll show you how the root of that word is Greek."

— Gus Portokalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)

This beloved romantic comedy centers around Toula, a woman from a Greek·origin family in the U.S. I was intrigued by her father Gus’s zeal for the Greek etymology of words and dove into some research. I discovered just how many words in English trace back to the Greek language! Here are ten of the most interesting ones I came across:-

1. Petrichor

/ˈpɛtrɪkɔːr/ [pe·tri·kor]

a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.

If you've ever wondered what that amazing post·rain scent is, here’s your answer! Petrichor is made up of two words: petra (πέτρα), meaning “stone,” and ichor (ἰχώρ), said to be the golden fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the Greek gods.

“As I stepped out into the balcony, I wished I could bottle up the petrichor of the rainy afternoon.”

2. Oneiric

/ə(ʊ)ˈnʌɪrɪk/ [o·nai·rik]

relating to dreams or dreaming.

The prefix oneiro originates from óneiros (ὄνειρος), which means “dream.” In Greek mythology, dreams were sometimes personified as the Oneiroi, primordial deities led by Morpheus, the god of dreams. In film theory, oneiric refers to the use of dreamlike elements, as seen in popular favorites such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception.

“Of Hayao Miyazaki's oneiric and whimsical stories, ‘Spirited Away’ is my favourite.”

3. Heliophile

/ˈhēlēəˌfīl/ [he·leo·phile]

one attracted or adapted to sunlight.

In Greek mythology, Helios (Ἥλιος) was the sun god who rode a golden chariot each day from east to west across the sky. Heliophile specifically refers to “an aquatic alga adapted to attain maximum exposure to sunlight,” but the word can also be used colloquially to describe people who love sunlight.

“I always find her sunbathing on the lawn — she is such a heliophile!”

4. Ostracize

/ˈɒstrəsʌɪz/ [os·tra·size]

exclude from a society or group.

In the 17th century, eligible citizens in Greece could decide whether dangerous individuals (whose influence threatened the state) should be banished. Their votes were cast on shards of broken pottery or ostrakízō, so this practice was known as ostrakizein, which derives from óstrakon (ὄστρᾰκον), “shell” or “potsherd."

"He was ostracized by his community because of his idiosyncratic political views."

5. Eunoia

/juːˈnɔɪ.ə/ [yoo·noy·uh]

a feeling of goodwill (= being friendly and wanting to help), especially one that exists between a speaker and an audience.

Fun fact: Eunoia is the shortest English word that uses all five vowels! It derives from εὔνοια which means “well mind.” In his book, Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the word to refer to “the kind and benevolent feelings of goodwill that a spouse has and that form the basis for the ethical foundation of human life.”

“Their eunoia makes them a perfect candidate for a career in human rights.”

6. Protean

/ˈprəʊtɪən/ [pro·te·an]

able to do many different things; versatile

We have the Greek god Proteus, the original “master of disguise,” to thank for this eponym. He had the gift of prophecy but didn't want to share his knowledge, so he changed his shape at will to escape those who were looking for answers. Today, we use “protean” to pay a compliment to someone who is multitalented and adaptable.

“Meryl Streep is such a protean actor — she perfects both light-hearted roles and more serious ones.”

7. Catharsis

/kəˈθɑːsɪs/ [kuh·thaar·sis]

the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

We know this word in the context of art, thanks to the philosopher Aristotle who first used it in Poetics, to describe how tragedy evokes pity and fear in spectators. “Catharsis” stems from katharsis (κάθαρσις), which means “cleansing,” derived from katharos (καθαρός) or “pure.”

“I feel a great sense of catharsis after reading memoirs that I can relate to.”

8. Sycophant

/ˈsɪkəfant/ [si·kuh·fant]

a person who acts obsequiously towards someone important in order to gain advantage.

There is a lot of conjecture around the origin of this word, which comes from sykophántēs (συκοφάντης). One popular story alleges that the word dates back to sixth·century Athens where it was illegal to export food except olives. Sometimes, people dodged this rule by trying to smuggle figs across the border. If they were revealed to be a fig·smuggler, the accuser would be a sykophantes i.e. “a tale-teller about figs,” with sykos (συκος) meaning fig and phainein (φανης) meaning “to show.”

“My classmate is quite the sycophant — rude to all of us but friendly with our teacher.”

9. Planet

/ˈplanɪt/ [plan·it]

a celestial body moving in an elliptical orbit around a star.

The ancient Greeks believed Earth to be the center of the universe with objects in the sky revolving around it. They considered planets (specifically Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) to be asteres planetai (ἀστέρες πλανῆται) or “wandering stars,” starlike lights that moved across the sky throughout the year. Planēt (“wanderer”) has its origins in planasthai, a verb which means “to wander,” while asters means stars.

"Science fiction often makes me wonder if there is life on other planets."

10. Sarcasm

/ˈsɑːkaz(ə)m/ [saar·ka·sum]

the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.

It's fitting that we often refer to sarcasm as "biting" or “cutting” — the word originates from sarkasmós (σαρκασμός - a sneer), which goes back to sarkázein (σαρκάζειν) i.e. "to tear flesh,” and in late Greek, to “gnash the teeth, speak bitterly.”

“Though I find Chandler hilarious, his sarcasm can be a bit much for me.”

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