English words of Greek origin

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The Greek language has contributed to the English vocabulary in five main ways:

  • vernacular borrowings, transmitted through Vulgar Latin directly into Old English e.g. 'butter' (Old English butere < Latin butyrum < βούτυρον), or through French, e.g. 'ochre'.
  • learned borrowings from classical Greek, e.g. 'physics' (< Latin physica < Greek τὰ φυσικά);
  • a few borrowings via Arabic scientific and philosophical writing, e.g. 'alchemy' (< χημεία);
  • coinages in post-classical Latin or modern languages using classical Greek roots, e.g. 'telephone' (< τῆλε + φωνή) or a mixture of Greek and other roots, e.g. 'television' (< Greek τῆλε + English 'vision' < Latin visio); these are often shared among the modern European languages, including Modern Greek;
  • direct borrowings from Modern Greek, e.g. bouzouki.

The post-classical coinages are by far the most numerous of these.

Indirect and direct borrowings

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.

Some Greek words were borrowed into Latin and its descendants, the Romance languages. English often received these words from French. Their phonetic and orthographic form has sometimes changed considerably. For instance, place was borrowed both by Old English and by French from Latin platea, itself borrowed from Greek πλατεία (ὁδός) 'broad (street)'; the Italian piazza and Spanish plaza have the same origin, and have been borrowed into English in parallel. The word olive comes through the Romance from the Latin word olīva, which in turn comes from the Greek ἐλαίϝᾱ (elaíwā).[1][2] A later Greek word, βούτυρον (boútȳron)[3] becomes Latin butyrum and eventually English 'butter'.[4] A large group of early borrowings, again transmitted first through Latin, then through various vernaculars, comes from Christian vocabulary: chair << καθέδρα (cf. 'cathedra'),[5][6] bishop << ἐπίσκοπος (epískopos 'overseer'),[7] priest << πρεσβύτερος (presbýteros 'elder'),[8] and church < Old English cirice, circe < probably κυριακή [οἰκία] (kȳriakḗ [oikía] 'lord's [house]').[9][10] In some cases, the orthography of these words was later changed to reflect the Greek – and Latin – spelling: e.g. quire was respelled as choir in the 17th century.[11][12]

Many more words were borrowed by scholars writing in Medieval and Renaissance Latin. Some words were borrowed in essentially their original meaning, often transmitted through classical Latin: topic, type, physics, iambic, eta, necromancy. A few result from scribal errors: encyclopedia < ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία 'the circle of learning', not a compound in Greek; acne (skin condition) < erroneous ἀκνή < ἀκμή 'high point, acme'. Some kept their Latin form, e.g. podium < πόδιον.

Others were borrowed unchanged as technical terms, but with specific, novel meanings: telescope < τηλεσκόπος 'far-seeing' refers to an optical instrument for seeing far away; phlogiston < φλογιστόν 'burnt thing' is a supposed fire-making potential.

But by far the largest Greek contribution to English vocabulary is the huge number of scientific, medical, and technical neologisms that have been coined by compounding Greek roots and affixes to produce novel words which never existed in the Greek language: utopia (1516, οὐ 'not' + τόπος 'place'), zoology (1669, ζῷον + λογία), hydrodynamics (1738, ὕδωρ + δυναμικός), photography (1834, φῶς + γραφικός), oocyte (1895, ᾠόν + κύτος), helicobacter (1989, ἕλιξ + βακτήριον). Such terms are coined in all the European languages, and spread to the others freely—including to Modern Greek. Traditionally, these coinages were constructed using only Greek morphemes, e.g. metamathematics, but increasingly, Greek, Latin, and other morphemes are combined, as in television (Greek τῆλε + Latin vision), metalinguistic (Greek μετά + Latin lingua + Greek -ιστής + Greek -ικος), and garbology (English garbage + Greek -ολογία). These hybrid words were formerly considered to be 'barbarisms'.

Many Greek affixes such as anti- and -ic have become productive in English, combining with arbitrary English words: antichoice, Fascistic.

Most learned borrowings and coinages follow the classical Latin Romanization system, where 'c' represents κ, rough breathings are written as 'h', etc., with a few exceptions: eureka (cf. heuristic), kinetic (cf. cinematography), krypton (cf. cryptic). In the 19th and 20th centuries, a few learned words and phrases were introduced using a transliteration of Ancient Greek (rather than the traditional Latin-based spelling and morphology or dropped inflectional endings), e.g. nous (νοῦς), hoi polloi (οἱ πολλοί), kudos (κύδος).

Some Greek words were borrowed through Arabic and then Romance: alchemy (χημεία or χημία), elixir (ξήριον), alembic (ἄμβιξ), botargo (ᾠοτάριχον), and possibly quintal (κεντηνάριον < Latin centenarium (pondus)). Curiously, chemist appears to be a back-formation from alchemist.

Some Greek words have given rise to etymological doublets, being borrowed both through an organic, indirect route, and a learned, direct route into English: anthem and antiphon (ἀντίφωνα),[13][14] frantic and frenetic (φρενετικός),[15][16] butter and butyr(ic) (βούτυρον), bishop and episcop(al) (ἐπίσκοπος), balm and balsam (βάλσαμον, probably itself a borrowing from Semitic), blame and blasphemy (βλάσφημος), box and pyx(is) (πυξίς), chair and cathedra(l) (καθέδρα), choir and chorus (χορός), trivet and tripod (τρίπους/τρίποδ-), slander and scandal (σκάνδαλον), oil, olive, oleum, and elaeo- (ἔλαιον); almond and amygdala (ἀμυγδάλη); dram and drachma (δραχμή), also dirhem via Arabic; paper and papyrus (πάπυρος); carat and keratin (κέρας, κέρατ-).[17][18] Parable and parabola (from παραβολή) are like this, but in addition, doublets in Romance give rise to palaver, parol, and parole.[19]

Finally, with the growth of tourism, some words reflecting modern Greek culture have been borrowed into English—many of them originally borrowings into Greek themselves: retsina, souvlaki, taverna (< Italian), ouzo (disputed etymology), moussaka (< Turkish < Arabic), baklava (< Turkish), feta (< Italian), bouzouki (< Turkish), gyro (the food, a calque of Turkish döner).

Greek as an intermediary

Many words from the Hebrew Bible were transmitted to the western languages through the Greek of the Septuagint, often without morphological regularization: pharaoh (Φαραώ), seraphim (σεραφείμ, σεραφίμ), paradise (παράδεισος < Hebrew < Persian), rabbi (ραββί).

The written form of Greek words in English

Many Greek words, especially those borrowed through the literary tradition, are recognizable as such from their spelling. Latin had standard conventions for the orthography of Greek borrowings: Greek υ was written as 'y', αι as 'æ', οι as 'œ', φ as 'ph', and κ as 'c'. These conventions (which originally reflected 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.

Some words whose spelling in French and Middle English did not reflect their Greco-Latin origins were refashioned with etymological spellings in the 16th and 17th centuries: caracter became character and quire became choir in the 16-17th centuries.[20]

The Ancient Greek diphthongs αι and οι 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 -ίζω 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-, tm-, gn- or bd-, then it is Greek, with some exceptions: gnat, gnaw, gneiss. One exception is ptarmigan, which is from a Gaelic word, the p having been added by false etymology. The word trophy, though ultimately of Greek origin, did not have a φ but a π in its Greek form, τρόπαιον.


In clusters such as ps-, pn-, or gn- which are not allowed by English phonotactics, the usual English pronunciation drops the first consonant (e.g. psychology) at the start of a word; compare gnostic [nɒstɪk] and agnostic [ægnɒstɪk]; there are a few exceptions: tmesis [tmiːsɪs]. 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").

Inflectional endings and plurals

Though many English words derived from Greek through the literary route drop the inflectional endings (tripod, zoology, pentagon) or use Latin endings (papyrus, mausoleum), some preserve the Greek endings: lexicon, schema (-), topos, climax (-s), agape, crisis, kudos.

In the case of Greek endings, the plurals 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); pentathlon, pentathlons not *pentathla; demon, demons not *demones; climaxes, not *climaces. Usage is mixed in some cases: schema, schemas or schemata; lexicon, lexicons or lexica; helix, helixes or helices; sphinx, sphinges or sphinxes; 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) (cf. Plurals from Latin and Greek).


Few English verbs are derived from the corresponding Greek verbs; examples are baptize, ostracize, and cauterize. However, the Greek verbal suffix -ize is productive in Latin, the Romance languages, and English: words like metabolize, though composed of a Greek root and a Greek suffix, are modern compounds.


Many Latin phrases are used verbatim in English texts—et cetera (etc.), ad nauseam, modus operandi (M.O.), ad hoc, in flagrante delicto, mea culpa, and so on—but relatively few Greek phrases or expressions are. Among them are: hoi polloi 'the many', eureka 'I have found (it)', kalos kagathos 'beautiful and virtuous', hapax legomenon 'once said'.

Calques and translations

Greek technical terminology was often calqued in Latin rather than borrowed,[21] and then borrowed from Latin into English. Examples include (grammatical) case from Latin casus 'an event, something that has fallen', a semantic calque of Greek πτώσις 'a fall'; nominative, from Latin nōminātīvus, a translation of Greek ὀνομαστική;[22] adverb, a morphological calque of Greek ἐπίρρημα as ad- + verbum;[23] magnanimus, from Greek μεγάθυμος, literally 'great spirit'.[21] A commonplace is an English calque of the Latin locus communis, itself a calque of Greek κοινός τόπος.[24] The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον has come into English both in borrowed forms like evangelical and the form gospel, a calque of Latin bona adnuntiatio, itself a calque of the Greek.[25]


The contribution of Greek to the English vocabulary can be quantified in two ways, type and token frequencies: 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.[26]

See also


  1. This must have been an early borrowing, since the Latin v reflects a still-pronounced digamma; the earliest attested form of it is the Mycenaean Greek 𐀁𐀨𐀷, e-ra-wa (transliterated as "elava"), attested in Linear B syllabic script. (See e-ra-wa, Mycenaean (Linear B) - English Glossary.) The Greek word was in turn apparently borrowed from a pre-Indo-European Mediterranean substrate; cf. Greek substrate language.
  2. Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  3. Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages (ISBN 0-226-07937-6) notes that the word has the form of a compound βοΰς + τυρός 'cow-cheese', possibly a calque from Scythian, or possibly an adaptation of a native Scythian word.
  4. Harper, Douglas. "butter". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Harper, Douglas. "chair". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Harper, Douglas. "cathedral". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Harper, Douglas. "bishop". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Harper, Douglas. "priest". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. church, on Oxford Dictionaries
  10. Harper, Douglas. "church". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Harper, Douglas. "choir". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Harper, Douglas. "chorus". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Harper, Douglas. "anthem". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Harper, Douglas. "antiphon". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Harper, Douglas. "frantic". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Harper, Douglas. "frenetic". Online Etymology Dictionary.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Walter William Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, "List of Doublets", p. 599ff (full text)
  18. Oxford English Dictionary
  19. Oxford English Dictionary, s.vv.
  20. OED, s.v.
  21. 21.0 21.1 Michèle Fruyt, "Latin Vocabulary", in James Clackson, ed., A Companion to the Latin Language, p. 152.
  22. "nominative". Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. 1933.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "adverb". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  24. "topic". Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. 1933.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "gospel". Oxford English Dictionary (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. 1933.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Scheler, Manfred (1977): Der englische Wortschatz. Berlin: Schmidt.


  • Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition
  • Konstantinidis, Aristidis (2006), Η Οικουμενική Διάσταση της Ελληνικής Γλώσσας (The Universal Reach of the Greek Language). ISBN 960-90338-2-2. Athens: self-published.
  • Krill, Richard M., Greek and Latin in English Today, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1990. ISBN 0-86516-241-7.
  • Scheler, Manfred (1977): Der englische Wortschatz (English vocabulary). Berlin: Schmidt.

External links