Monday, 30 January 2012

It's All Greek To Me

Ever heard someone use that phrase?

"It's all Greek to me."?

No, me neither. But it's a phrase. A phrase which basically means that something is so utterly incomprehensible because of its complexity, that if you tried to understand it, your brain would spontaneously and immediately LEAK OUT OF YOUR EARS, leaving your brainless, braindead body as a twitching heap on the living room carpet for a loved one to discover several hours later. Nice.

Okay, slight exaggeration but you get the point. 

For me, conversations about knitting are currently 'all Greek' (see earlier bloglet entitled 'New Year's Resolutions'). So I try not to think too much about all the odd terminology and the fact that 'dropping one' doesn't have anything to do with farting, and just get on with plodding through another row of practice stitches without muttering instructions to myself too loudly (front to back, bring the wool round, back to front and off).

Greek, in comparison, is nowhere near as confusing!

Okay so Greek, when it's written down, does have a tendancy to look like a completely baffling, alien language, I'll grant you. However, I am willing to bet (and I'm not really one for gambling) that you'd be surprised at how much you already know. In order to prove my point (not to mention my hypothetical bet) I have compiled a list of words which we use today that come directly from Greek. And the first one you've already read three times on this page.

1. Phrase - phrazein = to express/tell

2. Philosophy - philos = love, sophia = wisdom. If you know any philosphers why not follow them to a park (they love parks) and shout, "You wisdom lover!" at them. Then hide behind a bush just in case they get angry about someone disturbing their philosophical train of thought.

3. Hippopotamus - hippos = horse, potamos = river. Don't bring this one up around horses. They take great offence to being compared to hippos.

I would just like to point out that words in this list have something in common with the contestants who get through to the next week on X Factor when Dermot reads the results; they are revealed in no particular order. So don't try to find a logical jump from 'philosophy' to 'hippopotamus', it'll just make your head hurt.

Moving on ... if we carefully select bits from numbers 2 and 3 and squish them together in a beautiful, squishy mess, we come up with ...

4. Philippa. The name literally means 'horse lover'. If you know a Philippa and she doesn't love horses, kindly suggest she changes her name.

5. Telephone - tele = far, phone = sound. Because when you speak to someone on the telephone you're hearing a sound (well, a voice) which comes from somewhere far away ... cool, eh? Speaking of phone ...

6. Xylophone - xylon = wood, and you already know phone = sound. So the xylophone is the wooden one. Anything else and it's a glockenspiel but that comes from German and I haven't received sufficient training to write about German words, so we'll move swiftly on.

7. Euthanasia - eu = good, thanatos = death

8. Monarchy - monos = only/one, arkhein = to rule

Monos also rears its cute, little head in other English words which we've pinched from the Greeks, for example ...

9. Monotheism - theos = god

10. Monogamy - gamos = marriage

Incidentally, the opposite of 'monogamy' ('polygamy') contains another Greek word ...

11. Polygamy - polus = many

12. Polyglot (someone who speaks many languages) - glossa/glotta = tongue

13. Sarcophagus - sarkophagos (yep, we pretty much just nicked the whole Greek word and plonked it into English, substituting Greek letters for our own) = limestone coffin/eating flesh. I think it is fantastic that they thought up a single word to mean 'eating flesh'. I suppose we have 'carnivorous' but that's Latin and therefore for another bloglet on another day.

While we're on the happy subject of flesh-eating ...

14. Sarcasm - sarkazein = to strip off the flesh. So basically sarcasm is a form of comedy which intends to wound the flesh of another person. Word.

15. Atmosphere - atmos = steam/vapour, spharia = a ball/sphere. I would love one day to comment on the bad atmosphere in a room by saying, "Goodness, there's quite a negative ball of vapour in here, isn't there?" But, because I'm not an actual loser, despite appearances, I probably never will.

16. Stethoscope - stethos = chest/breast, skopein = to look at. A stethoscope allows a doctor to 'look at' a patient's chest ... despite the fact that they're not actually 'looking' but 'listening'. The Greek for 'to listen' is akouein (from which we get 'acoustics') so it should probably be called something like a stetho-acoustic instrument. But it doesn't roll off the tongue particularly well, so they went with stethoscope.

I wonder if anyone, for a house-point can now work out what number 17 literally means ...

17. Telescope - ??? (answer's at the bottom of the bloglet - no peeking!)

18. Architect - arkhi = chief (a bit like arkhein meant 'to rule'), tekton = builder/craftsman. I think I prefer the term 'chief craftsman' to architect.

19. Pathology - pathos - pain/suffering, logos (which can mean so many things, e.g. word, language, promise, speech, story, account, report, statement, reason), I suppose here it means 'cause' or 'study' of.

20. Cryptic - kruptos = hidden. Though, judging by my poor success rate with cryptic crosswords, I could make a fairly strong argument for kruptos actually meaning 'bloody impossible'.

21. Epitaph - epi = on, taphos - tomb. You can't escape the ancient Greeks' influence on our language even after death!

22. Photograph - "But Becky, kodak wasn't around when the Greeks were wandering round in their togas, how can 'photograph' come from Greek?" I hear you cry. Now let's not all be panicky pandas about this. I can explain.
phos/photos = light, graphe  = picture/drawing. I won't pretend I understand much of what goes on inside a camera when you take a picture, but I know that the film being exposed to light is an important factor ... though maybe not now with digital photography, which clearly is just black magic at work ... Anyway, the important thing to take from this is that a photograph is a 'light picture'. How cute.

23. Astronaut/Cosmonaut - astron = the stars, kosmos = the universe, nautes = sailor. The idea that you could literally be a star sailor, or a UNIVERSE SAILOR makes me want to sign up to the space programme immediately.

24. Democracy - demos = the people, kratos = power/strength. Power to the people, my friends.

25. Acropolis - acro = top part/high point, polis = city. So the acropolis in Athens is just the top bit of the city. It's got nothing to do with the white building ... apart from the fact that it's underneath it.

[Answer to number 17. Telescope - tele = far, skopein = to look at/examine. Literally 'telescope' means to look at/examine something far away. Give yourself a pat on the back if you managed to work it out.]

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