English words of Greek origin

English words of Greek origin

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The Greek language
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

has contributed to the English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

 vocabulary in three ways:
  1. directly as an immediate donor,
  2. indirectly through other intermediate language(s), as an original donor (mainly through Latin
    Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

     and French
    French language
    French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

    ), and
  3. modern coinages using Greek roots.


The contribution of Greek to the English vocabulary can be quantified in two ways, type and token frequencies
Type-token distinction
In disciplines such as philosophy and knowledge representation, the type-token distinction is a distinction that separates an abstract concept from the objects which are particular instances of the concept...

: type frequency is the proportion of distinct words; token frequency is the proportion of words in actual texts.

Since most words of Greek origin are specialized technical and scientific coinages, the type frequency is considerably higher than the token frequency. And the type frequency in a large word list will be larger than that in a small word list. In a typical English dictionary of 80,000 words, which corresponds very roughly to the vocabulary of an educated English speaker, about 5% of the words are borrowed from Greek directly, and about 25% indirectly (if we count modern coinages from Greek roots as Greek).

Since the living Greek and English languages were not in direct contact until modern times, borrowings were necessarily indirect, coming either through Latin (through texts or various vernaculars), or from Ancient Greek texts, not the living language. More recently, a huge number of scientific, medical, and technical neologisms have been coined from Greek roots—and often re-borrowed back into Modern Greek.

Still, there are a few Greek words which were borrowed organically—though indirectly. The English word olive comes through the Romance
Romance languages
The Romance languages are a branch of the Indo-European language family, more precisely of the Italic languages subfamily, comprising all the languages that descend from Vulgar Latin, the language of ancient Rome...

 from the Latin word olīva, which in turn comes from the Greek (elaíwā). This must have been an early borrowing, since the Latin v reflects a still-pronounced digamma
Digamma is an archaic letter of the Greek alphabet which originally stood for the sound /w/ and later remained in use only as a numeral symbol for the number "6"...

. The Greek word was in turn apparently borrowed from a pre-Indo-European
Indo-European languages
The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects, including most major current languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau, and South Asia and also historically predominant in Anatolia...

 Mediterranean substrate
In linguistics, a stratum or strate is a language that influences, or is influenced by another through contact. A substratum is a language which has lower power or prestige than another, while a superstratum is the language that has higher power or prestige. Both substratum and superstratum...

 (see also Greek substrate language
Greek substrate language
The term Pre-Greek substrate refers to the unknown language or languages that are conjectured to have been spoken in prehistoric Greece before the settlement of Proto-Greek speakers in the area...

), although the earliest attested form of it is the Mycenaean Greek
Mycenaean language
Mycenaean Greek is the most ancient attested form of the Greek language, spoken on the Greek mainland, Crete and Cyprus in the 16th to 12th centuries BC, before the hypothesised Dorian invasion which was often cited as the terminus post quem for the coming of the Greek language to Greece...

  e-ra-wa (transliterated as "elava"), attested in Linear B
Linear B
Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, an early form of Greek. It pre-dated the Greek alphabet by several centuries and seems to have died out with the fall of Mycenaean civilization...

 syllabic script. A later Greek word, (bouturon), either borrowed from or calqued on a Scythian
Scythian languages
Scythian languages refers to all the languages spoken by all the peoples of a vast region of Eurasia named Scythia extending from the Vistula river in East Europe to Mongolia during ancient times. Included also are some languages of eastern Iran and the Central Asian subcontinent...

 word, becomes Latin butyrum and eventually English butter. A larger group of early borrowings, again transmitted first through Latin, then through various vernaculars, comes from Christian language: bishop from ἐπίσκοπος (epískopos 'overseer'), priest from πρεσβύ̄τερος (presbū́teros 'elder'), and church from κῡριακόν (kȳriakón). Unlike later borrowings, which came from a written, learned tradition, olive, bishop, and so on were transmitted through vernaculars, so their English spelling does not reflect their Greek forms.

Until the 16th century, the few Greek words that were absorbed into English came through their Latin derivatives. Most of the early borrowings are for expressions in theology for which there were no English equivalents. In the late 16th century an influx of Greek words were derived directly, in intellectual fields and the new science.

In the 19th and 20th centuries a few learned words and phrases were introduced using a more or less direct transliteration of Ancient Greek (rather than the traditional Latin-based orthography) for instance nous (νοῦς), hoi polloi
Hoi polloi
Hoi polloi , an expression meaning "the many", or in the strictest sense, "the majority" in Greek, is used in English to denote "the masses" or "the people", usually in a derogatory sense. Synonyms for "hoi polloi" include ".....

(οἱ πολλοί).

Finally with the growth of tourism, some words, mainly reflecting aspects of current Greek life, have been introduced with orthography reflecting Modern Greek
Modern Greek
Modern Greek refers to the varieties of the Greek language spoken in the modern era. The beginning of the "modern" period of the language is often symbolically assigned to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, even though that date marks no clear linguistic boundary and many characteristic...

, for instance taverna
Taverna refers to a small restaurant serving Greek cuisine, not to be confused with "tavern". The Greek word is ταβέρνα and is originally derived from the Latin word taberna...


The written form of Greek words in English

Greek words borrowed through the literary tradition (not butter and bishop) are often recognizable from their spelling. Already in Latin, there were specific conventions for borrowing Greek. So Greek was written as 'y', as 'æ', as 'œ', as 'ph', etc. These conventions (which originally reflected differences in pronunciation) have carried over into English and other languages with historical orthography (like French). They make it possible to recognize words of Greek origin, and give hints as to their pronunciation and inflection.

The Ancient Greek diphthongs and may be spelled in three different ways in English: the digraphs ae and oe; the ligatures æ and œ; or the simple letter e. Both the digraphs and ligatures are uncommon in American usage, but the digraphs remain common in British usage. Examples are: encyclopaedia /encyclopædia / encyclopedia, haemoglobin / hæmoglobin / hemoglobin, oedema / œdema / edema, Oedipus / Œdipus / Edipus (rare). The verbal ending is spelled -ize in American English and -ise or -ize in British English.

In some cases, a word's spelling clearly shows its Greek origin. If it includes ph or includes y between consonants, it is very likely Greek. If it includes rrh, phth, or chth; or starts with hy-, ps-, pn-, or chr-; or the rarer pt-, ct-, chth-, rh-, x-, sth-, mn-, or bd-, then it is with very few exceptions Greek. One exception is ptarmigan, which is from a Gaelic
Goidelic languages
The Goidelic languages or Gaelic languages are one of the two branches of the Insular Celtic languages, the other consisting of the Brythonic languages. Goidelic languages historically formed a dialect continuum stretching from the south of Ireland through the Isle of Man to the north of Scotland...

 word, the p having been added by false etymology
False etymology
Folk etymology is change in a word or phrase over time resulting from the replacement of an unfamiliar form by a more familiar one. Unanalyzable borrowings from foreign languages, like asparagus, or old compounds such as samblind which have lost their iconic motivation are...


In English, Greek prefixes and suffixes are usually attached to Greek stems, but some have become productive in English, and will combine with other stems, so we now have not only metaphor (direct borrowing from genuine ancient Greek word) and metamathematics (modern coinage using Greek roots), but also metalinguistic (Greek prefix, Latin stem).

In clusters such as ps- at the start of a word, the usual English pronunciation drops the first consonant (e.g. psychology); initial x- is pronounced z. Ch is pronounced like k rather than as in "church" (e.g. character, chaos). Consecutive vowels are often pronounced separately rather than forming a single vowel sound or one of them becoming silent (e.g. "theatre" vs. "feat").


The plurals of learned Greek-derived words sometimes follow the Greek rules: phenomenon, phenomena; tetrahedron, tetrahedra; crisis, crises; hypothesis, hypotheses; stigma, stigmata; topos, topoi; cyclops, cyclopes; but often do not: colon, colons not *cola (except for the very rare technical term of rhetoric
Colon (rhetoric)
A colon is a rhetorical figure consisting of a clause which is grammatically, but not logically, complete. In Latin, it is called a membrum or membrum orationis....

); pentathlon, pentathlons not *pentathla; demon, demons not *demones. Usage is mixed in some cases: schema, schemas or schemata; lexicon, lexicons or lexica; clitoris, clitorises or clitorides. And there are misleading cases: pentagon comes from Greek pentagonon, so its plural cannot be *pentaga; it is pentagons (Greek πεντάγωνα/pentagona).


  • Scheler, Manfred (1977): Der englische Wortschatz 'English vocabulary'. Berlin: Schmidt.
  • Konstantinidis, Aristidis (2006): Η Οικουμενική Διάσταση της Ελληνικής Γλώσσας 'The Universal Reach of the Greek Language' ISBN 960-90338-2-2. Athens: self-published.

See also

  • List of Greek words with English derivatives
  • List of Latin and Greek words commonly used in systematic names for help with Greek-derived scientific names of organisms
  • Transliteration of Greek into English
  • English pronunciation of Greek letters
    English pronunciation of Greek letters
    This table gives the common English pronunciation of Greek letters using the International Phonetic Alphabet It is the pronunciation of the ancient Greek names of the Greek letters using the English teaching pronunciation...

  • Classical compound
    Classical compound
    Classical compounds are compound words composed from Latin or Ancient Greek root words. A large portion of the technical and scientific lexicon of English and other Western European languages consists of classical compounds. For example, bio- combines with -graphy to form biography...

  • Hybrid word
    Hybrid word
    A hybrid word is a word which etymologically has one part derived from one language and another part derived from a different language.-Common hybrids:The most common form of hybrid word in English is one which combines etymologically Latin and Greek parts...

  • Xenophon Zolotas
    Xenophon Zolotas
    Xenophon Zolotas , was a Greek economist and served as an interim non-party Prime Minister of Greece.-Early life and career:Born in Athens in 1904, Zolotas studied economics at the University of Athens, and later studied in Leipzig and Paris. He came from a wealthy family of goldsmiths with roots...

  • Etymologicum Magnum
    Etymologicum Magnum
    Etymologicum Magnum is the traditional title of a Greek lexical encyclopedia compiled at Constantinople by an unknown lexicographer around 1150 AD. It is the largest Byzantine lexicon and draws on many earlier grammatical, lexical and rhetorical works...

External links