Word Wednesday: Where’d All That Greek Come From?

At this time [of the Renaissance – a good French word – remember our last post on this?] there was a huge influx of Greek words into the English language. Greek had always had a sort of back-door influence, anyway, through the Catholic Church and its Latin. During the era of the Roman Empire, Latin was the common tongue of Italy, but Greek was an international trade language. That’s why the Gospel writers picked Greek for their New Testament writings. Latin adopted lots of words from Greek. So, Greek sneaked into our vocabulary from the beginning like a stowaway tucked inside the hull of Latin. But the majority of words in our vocabulary today that are derived from Greek came in at the time of the Renaissance.

The Renaissance created a revolution in every field of human endeavor from physics, biology, and anatomy, to art, geography, and philosophy. Much of the advance in learning was spurred on by all the writings of the ancient Greek scientists and philosophers that were now available. That marvelous new invention, the printing press, was fueling the excitement by making books cheap and available. Greek words became popular. They were used to name all sorts of new things Europeans were learning and inventing. Just as Latin had always been …a back up for labeling newly crystallized English ideas, now Greek words were being used the same way. Reshaping Greek words into modern English lingo became a virtual fad for those on the cutting edge of any endeavor. Anything new was labeled with Greek. In fact, Greek – and Latin, too – were used so much that some English writers accused others of grossly overusing Greek and Latin just in order to sound stylish and educated. Their words were dubbed ‘inkhorn words.’ An inkhorn was  simply a bottle in which ink was kept, but an inkhorn word was a slur, insinuating that the words were being used merely to show off one’s knowledge of Greek and Latin, not for any truly useful purpose. Of course, using foreign words to sound sophisticated was nothing new.

…From video recorder to computer, megabyte to microwave, our own era is still using Greek and Latin words to coin new words for new things and new concepts. In fact, if you want to build your English vocabulary, just memorize the fifty or so most commonly used Greek and Latin root words. You will increase your ability to decipher unfamiliar English words, or at least make an educated guess at what they mean. Basically, because of the Renaissance, you can raise your SAT score by studying Greek and Latin roots. The word for new word itself is a Greek derivative: neologism. Neo means new, and logos means word.

I imagine you can start putting together other such Greek and Latin combinations: theology (the study of God), biology (the study of life), photograph (light writing), autograph (self writing) – and how about arachnophobia (spider fear)!

And here’s another influence of Greek on our English:

The entrance of so much Greek during the Renaissance also explains some of the weirdest of our English spellings. These letter combos are almost always derived from Greek:

ph for the sound of f (photo, physical, philosophy)
ps for the sound of s (psychology, psychosis, psychic)
pn for n (pneumonia, pneumatic)
ch for the sound of k (Christ, charisma, character).

…So, next time you hear someone say how strange it is that we don’t just spell photograph with an f, you can tell them – it’s Greek!

King Alfred's English: A History of the Language We Speak and Why We Should  Be Glad We Do: White, Laurie J, Mullen, Marika: 9780980187717: Amazon.com:  Books
Taken from the chapter “The Invasion of Greek” in the fun and fascinating history of the English language by Laurie J. White, King Alfred’s English: A History of the Language We Speak and Why We Should Be Glad We Do (The Shorter Word Press, 2009, pp.88-90). Her segments on the Reformation and the history of the English Bible are outstanding. Maybe I’ll reference them next time.

Published in: on September 9, 2020 at 9:16 PM  Leave a Comment  

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