It’s Greek to Me

Well, hello, good-looking!

Wouldn’t it have been interesting to be a fly on the cave wall when prehistoric humans were deciding what to call that substance that cooked their food and kept them warm?  How did it come to be called “fire”; did the tribal council put the official noun to a vote?  “That’s seventeen for ‘fire’, six for ‘hot stuff’, and,” — with a withering glance at the neighborhood fool — “one vote for ‘poo-poo’.”

No, language evolves more gradually than that, of course, and vocabularies are developed from lots of sources.  The English language has assimilated elements of Gaelic and German and Latin and many others; words with roots that are thousands of years old are still in use today.  OK, maybe not every day, but consider, by way of example, some of the words we have borrowed from Greek mythology:

There are the Titans, the Furies, the Sirens.  The Greek goddess of health was Hygieia, from whose name we get “hand-sanitizer”.  Nemesis has come to mean “archrival” or “unbeatable opponent”, as in “Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay is the nemesis of the Cincinnati Reds.”  The orginal Nemesis was a Greek goddess who dealt out justice, or vengeance, to the wicked.

Our word hypnosis is derived from Hypnos, the personification of sleep.  Then there’s Psyche, who started out in Greek legend as a king’s daughter and came to be associated, through a complicated tale, with the human soul, and by extension, the mind.

Tantalus was a son of Zeus who was punished for revealing secrets of the gods to mere mortals.  His punishment was to stand in chin-deep water, but when his thirst compelled him to drink, the water receded just out of reach of his mouth.  In other words, Tantalus was tantalized.

As you know, there was a lot of treachery and back-stabbing going on among the Greek deities and their underlings.  Echo was a nymph who was given the task of distracting Zeus’s wife Hera while he rendezvoused with his various mistresses at the Mount Olympus Hilton.  Echo’s strategy was to talk incessantly, but eventually Hera stopped listening and figured out what Echo had been doing.  Hera punished her by altering Echo’s power of speech — she could only repeat the last thing that someone else said.

Echo also figures in the story of Narcissus, who is the patron saint, so to speak, of reality-show performers.  Our word narcissism, which means “inordinate fascination with oneself; vanity”, is derived from Narcissus, who found himself utterly irresistible.

According to the legend, he was a good-looking guy and Echo fell hard for him, but she placed a distant second in his affections — he was too busy admiring his own hunky reflection in a pool.  As one version has it, Echo was so distraught at his rejection of her that she cried until nothing was left but a trace of her voice.

Narcissus eventually died of frustration because he couldn’t have a satisfying relationship with his own reflection.  But what could he do — that face in the pool was just too beautiful for words.

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One response to “It’s Greek to Me

  1. Tom… I have often thought how we came to name a plant that we all eat with either butter or mayo. We put it in salads, we pickle them and it takes a lot of work to make them edible. Who look a this and said, “let’s all eat this artichoke!”

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