English words of Greek origin
All etymologies in this article are sourced from the Oxford English Dictionary and can be found under the English word; somewhat less complete etymologies may also be found in other online and offline dictionaries, such as the Online Etymological Dictionary, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary.
- vernacular borrowings, transmitted orally through Vulgar Latin directly into Old English, e.g., 'butter' (butere, from Latin butyrum < βούτυρον), or through French, e.g., 'ochre'.
- learned borrowings from classical Greek texts, often via Latin, e.g., 'physics' (< Latin physica < τὰ φυσικά);
- a few borrowings transmitted through other languages, notably Arabic scientific and philosophical writing, e.g., 'alchemy' (< χημεία);
- coinages (neologisms) 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., ouzo.
The neologisms are by far the most numerous of these.
Indirect and direct borrowingsEdit
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 through French and other vernaculars), or from Ancient Greek texts, not the living spoken language.
Some Greek words were borrowed into Latin and its descendants, the Romance languages. English often received these words from French. Some have remained very close to the Greek original, e.g. lamp (Latin lampas; Greek λαμπάς). In others, the phonetic and orthographic form has changed considerably. For instance, place was borrowed both by Old English and by French from Latin platea, itself borrowed from 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 olīva, which in turn comes from the Greek elaíwā (ἐλαίϝᾱ). A later Greek word, boútȳron (βούτυρον), becomes Latin butyrum and eventually English butter. A large group of early borrowings, again transmitted first through Latin, then through various vernaculars, comes from Christian vocabulary:
- chair << καθέδρα (cf. 'cathedra');
- bishop << epískopos (ἐπίσκοπος 'overseer');
- priest << presbýteros (πρεσβύτερος 'elder'); and
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. Sometimes this was done incorrectly: ache is from a Germanic root; the spelling ache reflects Samuel Johnson's incorrect etymology from ἄχος.
Exceptionally, church came into Old English as cirice, circe via a West Germanic language. The Greek form was probably kȳriakḗ [oikía] (κυριακή [οἰκία] 'lord's [house]'). In contrast, the Romance languages generally used the Latin words ecclēsia or basilica, both borrowed from Greek.
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, cosmopolite. A few result from scribal errors: encyclopedia < ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία 'the circle of learning' (not a compound in Greek); acne < ἀκνή (erroneous) < 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 rather than a person who can see far into the distance;
- phlogiston < φλογιστόν 'burnt thing', is a supposed fire-making potential rather than something which has been burned, or can be burned; and
- bacterium < βακτήριον 'stick (diminutive)', is a kind of microorganism rather than a small stick or staff.
Usage in neologismsEdit
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)
So it is really the combining forms of Greek roots and affixes that are borrowed, not the words. Neologisms using these elements are coined in all the European languages, and spread to the others freely—including to Modern Greek, where they are considered to be reborrowings. Traditionally, these coinages were constructed using only Greek morphemes, e.g., metamathematics, but increasingly, Greek, Latin, and other morphemes are combined. These hybrid words were formerly considered to be 'barbarisms', such as:
- television (τῆλε + Latin vision);
- metalinguistic (μετά + Latin lingua + -ιστής + -ικος); and
- garbology (English garbage + -ολογία).
Some derivations are idiosyncratic, for example:
- utopia and gas (< χάος) are irregular both in formation and in spelling;
- hadron < ἁδρός with the suffix -on, itself abstracted from Greek anion (ἀνιόν);
- henotheism < ἑνό(ς) 'one' + θεός 'god', though eno- is not used as a prefix in Greek; and
- taxonomy < τάξις 'order' + -nomy (-νομία 'study of'), where the "more etymological form" is taxinomy, as found in ταξίαρχος, 'taxiarch', and the neologism taxidermy. Modern Greek uses ταξινομία in its reborrowing.
- -cyte or cyto- < κύτος 'container', means biological cells, not arbitrary containers.
- -oma < -ωμα, a generic morpheme forming deverbal nouns, such as diploma ('a folded thing') and glaucoma ('greyness'), comes to have the very narrow meaning of 'tumor' or 'swelling', on the model of words like carcinoma < καρκίνωμα. For example, melanoma does not come from μελάνωμα 'blackness', but rather from the modern combining forms melano- ('dark' [in biology]) + -oma ('tumor').
- -itis < -ῖτις, a generic adjectival suffix; in medicine used to mean a disease characterized by inflammation: appendicitis, conjunctivitis, ..., and now facetiously generalized to mean "feverish excitement".
- -osis < -ωσις, originally a state, condition, or process; in medicine, used for a disease.
In standard chemical nomenclature, the numerical prefixes are "only loosely based on the corresponding Greek words", e.g. octaconta- is used for 80 instead of the Greek ogdoeconta- '80'. There are also "mixtures of Greek and Latin roots", e.g., nonaconta-, for 90, is a blend of the Latin nona- for 9 and the Greek -conta- found in words such as ἐνενήκοντα enenekonta '90'. The Greek form is, however, used in the names of polygons in mathematics, though the names of polyhedra are more idiosyncratic.
Some words in English have been reanalyzed as a base plus suffix, leading to suffixes based on Greek words, but which are not suffixes in Greek (cf. libfix). Their meaning relates to the full word they were shortened from, not the Greek meaning:
- -athon or -a-thon (from the portmanteau word walkathon, from walk + (mar)athon).
- -ase, used in chemistry for enzymes, is abstracted from diastase, where -ασις is not a morpheme at all in Greek.
- -on for elementary particles, from electron: lepton, neutron, phonon, ...
- -nomics refers specifically to economics: Reaganomics.
Through other languagesEdit
However, others are popular:
- botargo (ᾠοτάριχον)
- tajine (τάγηνον)
- carat (κεράτιον)
- talisman (τέλεσμα)
- possibly quintal (κεντηνάριον < Latin centenarium (pondus)).
A few words took other routes:
- Seine (a kind of fishing net) comes from a West Germanic form *sagīna, from Latin sagēna, from σαγήνη.
- Effendi comes from Turkish, borrowed from Medieval Greek αυθέντης (/afˈθendis/, 'lord').
Vernacular or learned doubletsEdit
Other doublets come from differentiation in the borrowing languages:
From modern GreekEdit
Finally, with the growth of tourism and emigration, some words reflecting modern Greek culture have been borrowed into English—many of them originally borrowings into Greek themselves:
Greek as an intermediaryEdit
Written form of Greek words in EnglishEdit
Many Greek words, especially those borrowed through the literary tradition, are recognizable as such from their spelling. Latin had standard orthographies for Greek borrowings, including, but not limited to:
- Greek υ was written as 'y'
- η as 'e'
- χ as 'ch'
- φ as 'ph'
- κ as 'c'
- rough breathings as 'h'
- both ι and ει as 'i'
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.
The ligatures have largely fallen out of use worldwide; the digraphs are uncommon in American usage, but remain common in British usage. The spelling depends mostly on the variety of English, not on the particular word. Examples include: encyclopaedia / encyclopædia / encyclopedia; haemoglobin / hæmoglobin / hemoglobin; and oedema / œdema / edema. Some words are almost always written with the digraph or ligature: amoeba / amœba, rarely ameba; Oedipus / Œdipus, rarely Edipus; others are almost always written with the single letter: sphære and hæresie were obsolete by 1700; phænomenon by 1800; phænotype and phænol by 1930. The verbal ending -ίζω is spelled -ize in American English, and -ise or -ize in British English.
Since the 19th century, a few learned words were introduced using a direct transliteration of Ancient Greek and including the Greek endings, rather than the traditional Latin-based spelling: nous (νοῦς), koine (κοινή), hoi polloi (οἱ πολλοί), kudos (κύδος), moron (μωρόν), kubernetes (κυβερνήτης). For this reason, the Ancient Greek digraph ει is rendered differently in different words—as i, following the standard Latin form: idol < εἴδωλον; or as ei, transliterating the Greek directly: eidetic (< εἰδητικός), deixis, seismic. Most plurals of words ending in -is are -es (pronounced [iːz]), using the regular Latin plural rather than the Greek -εις: crises, analyses, bases, with only a few didactic words having English plurals in -eis: poleis, necropoleis, and acropoleis (though acropolises is by far the most common English plural).
Most learned borrowings and coinages follow the Latin system, but there are some irregularities:
- eureka (cf. heuristic);
- kaleidoscope (the regular spelling would be calidoscope)
- kinetic (cf. cinematography);
- krypton (cf. cryptic);
- acolyte (< ἀκόλουθος; acoluth would be the etymological spelling, but acolythus, acolotus, acolithus are all found in Latin);
- stoichiometry (< στοιχεῖον; regular spelling would be st(o)echio-).
- aneurysm was formerly often spelled aneurism on the assumption that it uses the usual -ism ending.
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 some cases, a word's spelling clearly shows its Greek origin:
- If it includes ph pronounced as /f/ or y between consonants, it is very likely Greek, with some exceptions, such as nephew, cipher, triumph.
- 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.
Other exceptions include:
- ptarmigan is from a Gaelic word, the p having been added by false etymology;
- style is probably written with a 'y' because the Greek word στῦλος 'column' (as in peristyle, 'surrounded by columns') and the Latin word stilus, 'stake, pointed instrument', were confused.
- 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-, and 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 [t(ə)miːsɪs].
Initial x- is pronounced z. Ch is pronounced like k rather than as in "church": e.g., character, chaos. The consecutive vowel letters 'ea' are generally pronounced separately rather than forming a single vowel sound when transcribing a Greek εα, which was not a digraph, but simply a sequence of two vowels with hiatus, as in genealogy or pancreas (cf., however, ocean, ωκεανός); zeal (earlier zele) comes irregularly from the η in ζήλος.
The stress on borrowings via Latin which keep their Latin form generally follows the traditional English pronunciation of Latin, which depends on the syllable structure in Latin, not in Greek. For example, in Greek, both ὑπόθεσις (hypothesis) and ἐξήγησις (exegesis) are accented on the antepenult, and indeed the penult has a long vowel in exegesis; but because the penult of Latin exegēsis is heavy by Latin rules, the accent falls on the penult in Latin and therefore in English.
Inflectional endings and pluralsEdit
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:
- -ον: phenomenon, criterion, neuron, lexicon;
- -∅: plasma, drama, dilemma, trauma (-ma is derivational, not inflectional);
- -ος: chaos, ethos, asbestos, pathos, cosmos;
- -ς: climax (ξ x = k + s), helix, larynx, eros, pancreas, atlas;
- -η: catastrophe, agape, psyche;
- -ις: analysis, basis, crisis, emphasis;
- -ης: diabetes, herpes, isosceles.
In cases like scene, zone, fame, though the Greek words ended in -η, the silent English e is not derived from it.
In the case of Greek endings, the plurals sometimes follow the Greek rules: phenomenon, phenomena; tetrahedron, tetrahedra; crisis, crises; hypothesis, hypotheses; polis, poleis; 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—the Greek form would be *pentagona (cf. Plurals from Latin and Greek).
A few dozen English verbs are derived from the corresponding Greek verbs; examples are baptize, blame and blaspheme, stigmatize, ostracize, and cauterize. In addition, 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. A few of these also existed in Ancient Greek, such as crystallize, characterize, and democratize, but were probably coined independently in modern languages. This is particularly clear in cases like allegorize and synergize, where the Greek verbs ἀλληγορεῖν and συνεργεῖν do not end in -ize at all. Some English verbs with ultimate Greek etymologies, like pause and cycle, were formed as denominal verbs in English, even though there are corresponding Greek verbs, παῦειν/παυσ- and κυκλεῖν.
Borrowings and cognatesEdit
Greek and English share many Indo-European cognates. In some cases, the cognates can be confused with borrowings. For example, the English mouse is cognate with Greek μῦς /mys/ and Latin mūs, all from an Indo-European word *mūs; they are not borrowings. Similarly, acre is cognate to Latin ager and Greek αγρός, but not a borrowing; the prefix agro- is a borrowing from Greek, and the prefix agri- a borrowing from Latin.
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 this is rarer for Greek phrases or expressions:
Calques and translationsEdit
- (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;
- adverb, a morphological calque of Greek ἐπίρρημα as ad- + verbum;
- magnanimous, from Greek μεγάθυμος (lit. 'great spirit');
- essence, from Latin essentia, which was constructed from the notional present participle *essens, imitating Greek οὐσία.
- Substance, from Latin substantia, a calque of Greek υπόστασις (cf. hypostasis);
- Cicero coined moral on analogy with Greek ηθικός.
- Recant is modeled on παλινῳδεῖν.
Greek phrases were also calqued in Latin, then borrowed or translated into English:
- commonplace is an English calque of the Latin locus communis, itself a calque of Greek κοινός τόπος.
- Latin deus ex machina 'god out of the machine' was calqued from the Greek apò mēkhanês theós (ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός).
- materia medica is a short form of Dioscorides' De Materia Medica, the Latin translation of Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς.
- quod erat demonstrandum (Q.E.D.) is a calque of ὅπερ ἔδει δεῖξαι.
- subject matter is a calque of Latin subiecta māteria, itself a calque of Aristotle's phrase "ἡ ὑποκειμένη ὕλη."
- wisdom tooth came to English from Latin dentes sapientiae, from Arabic aḍrāsu 'lḥikmi, from σωϕρονιστῆρες, used by Hippocrates.
- political animal is from πολιτικὸν ζῷον (in Aristotle's Politics).
- quintessence is post-classical Latin quinta essentia, from Greek πέμπτη οὐσία.
The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον has come into English both in borrowed forms like evangelical and the form gospel, an English calque (Old English gód spel 'good tidings') of Latin bona adnuntiatio, itself a calque of the Greek.
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.
Of the 500 most common words in English, 18 are of Greek origin: place (rank 115), problem (121), school (147), system (180), program (241), idea (252), story (307), base (328), center (335), period (383), history (386), type (390), music (393), political (395), policy (400), paper (426), phone (480), economic (494).
- Oxford English Dictionary, by subscription
- Online Etymological Dictionary, free
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary, free
- American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, free
- Ayers, Donald M. 1986. English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. (2nd ed.). p. 158.
- Tom McArthur, ed., The Oxford companion to the English language, 1992, ISBN 019214183X, s.v. 'Greek', p. 453-454
- 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-ra3-wo 'elaiwo(n)', attested in Linear B syllabic script. (see C.B. Walker, John Chadwick, Reading the Past: Ancient Writing from Cuneiform to the Alphabet, 1990, ISBN 0520074319, p. 161) The Greek word was in turn apparently borrowed from a pre-Indo-European Mediterranean substrate; cf. Greek substrate language.
- 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.
- Okrent, Arika. October 8, 2014. "5 Words That Are Spelled Weird Because Someone Got the Etymology Wrong." Mental Floss. (Also in OED.)
- Both are used in French; see: Jean-Louis Fisher, Roselyne Rey, "De l'origine et de l'usage des termes taxinomie-taxonomie", Documents pour l’histoire du vocabulaire scientifique, Institut national de la langue française, 1983, 5:97-113
- Andriotis et al., Λεξικό της κοινής νεοελληνικής = Triantafyllidis Dictionary, s.v.
- Simeon Potter, Our language, Penguin, 1950, p. 43
- N. Lozac'h, "Extension of Rules A-1.1 and A-2.5 concerning numerical terms used in organic chemical nomenclature (Recommendations 1986)", Pure and Applied Chemistry 58:12:1693-1696 doi:10.1351/pac198658121693, under "Discussion", p. 1694-1695 full texte.g.%2C%20nona-%20for%209%2C%20undeca-%20for%2011%2C%20nonaconta-%20for%2090). deep link to WWW version
- Skeat gives more on p. 605-606, but the Oxford English Dictionary does not agree with his etymologies of cobalt, nickel, etc.
- Walter William Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, "List of Doublets", p. 599ff (full text)
- Edward A. Allen, "English Doublets", Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 23:2:184-239 (1908) doi:10.2307/456687 JSTOR 456687
- Crosby, Henry Lamar, and John Nevin Schaeffer. 1928. An Introduction to Greek. section 66.
- Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, s.v.
- Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1897, s.v., p. 4432
- Hickey, Raymond. "Phonological change in English." In The Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics 12.10, edited by M. Kytö and P. Pahta.
- Fruyt, Michèle. "Latin Vocabulary." In A Companion to the Latin Language, edited by J. Clackson. p. 152.
- Eleanor Detreville, "An Overview of Latin Morphological Calques on Greek Technical Terms: Formation and Success", M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, 2015, full text
- Joseph Owens, Étienne Henry Gilson, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 1963, p. 140
- F.A.C. Mantello, Medieval Latin, 1996, ISBN 0813208416, p. 276
- Wilhelm Wundt et al., Ethics: An Investigation of the Facts and Laws of the Moral Life, 1897, p. 1:26
- A.J. Woodman, "O MATRE PVLCHRA: The Logical Iambist: To the memory of Niall Rudd", The Classical Quarterly 68:1:192-198 (May 2018) doi:10.1017/S0009838818000228, footnote 26
- Scheler, Manfred. 1977. Der englische Wortschatz. Berlin: Schmidt.
- New General Service List, 
- Gaidatzi, Theopoula. July 1985. "Greek loanwords in English" (M.A. thesis). University of Leeds
- Konstantinidis, Aristidis. 2006. Η Οικουμενική Διάσταση της Ελληνικής Γλώσσας [The Universal Reach of the Greek Language]. Athens: self-published. ISBN 960-90338-2-2.
- Krill, Richard M. 1990. Greek and Latin in English Today. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. ISBN 0-86516-241-7.
- March, F. A. 1893. "The Influence of the Greeks on the English Language." The Chautauquan 16(6):660–66.
- —— 1893. "Greek in the English of Modern Science." The Chautauquan 17(1):20–23.
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|For a list of words relating to with Ancient Greek language origins, see the English terms derived from Ancient Greek category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
|For a list of words relating to with Greek language origins, see the English terms derived from Greek category of words in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Mathematical Words: Origins and Sources (John Aldrich, University of Southampton)