English Words of Greek Origin
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English Words of Greek Origin

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

  • vernacular borrowings, transmitted orally through Vulgar Latin directly into Old English, e.g., 'butter' (butere, from Latin butyrum < ), or through French, e.g., 'ochre'.
  • learned borrowings from classical Greek texts, often via Latin, e.g., 'physics' (< Latin physica < );
  • a few borrowings transmitted through other languages, notably Arabic scientific and philosophical writing, e.g., 'alchemy' (< );
  • coinages in post-classical Latin or modern languages using classical Greek roots, e.g., 'telephone' (< ? + ?) or a mixture of Greek and other roots, e.g., 'television' (< Greek ? + 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 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 spoken language.[5]

Vernacular borrowings

Romance languages

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 ). 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 ? (?), '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 ol?va, which in turn comes from the Greek elaíw? ().[6] A later Greek word, boút?ron (),[7] 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 << ? (cf. 'cathedra');
  • bishop << epískopos ( 'overseer');
  • priest << presbýteros ( '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 ?.[8]


Exceptionally, church came into Old English as cirice, circe via a West Germanic language. The Greek form was probably k?riak? [oikía] (? [] 'lord's [house]'). In contrast, the Romance languages generally used the Latin words eccl?sia or basilica, both borrowed from Greek.

Learned borrowings

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 < ? 'the circle of learning' (not a compound in Greek); acne < ? (erroneous) < ? 'high point, acme'. Some kept their Latin form, e.g., podium < .

Others were borrowed unchanged as technical terms, but with specific, novel meanings:

This also applies to combining forms used in neologisms:

  • -cyte or cyto- < 'container', means biological cells, not arbitrary containers.
  • -oma < -, 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 < . For example, melanoma does not come from 'blackness', but rather from the modern combining forms melano- ('dark' [in biology]) + -oma ('tumor').
  • -ase, used in chemistry for enzymes, is abstracted from diastase, where - is not a morpheme at all.
  • -on for elementary particles
  • -nomics for things related to economics

Usage in neologisms

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:

So it is really the combining forms of Greek roots and affixes that are borrowed, not the words. Such terms are coined in all the European languages, and spread to the others freely--including to Modern Greek as 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:

Some derivations are idiosyncratic, for example: <

  • utopia and gas (< ?) are irregular both in formation and in spelling;
  • hadron < with the suffix -on, itself abstracted from Greek anion ();
  • henotheism < (?) 'one' + ? 'god', though eno- is not used as a prefix in Greek; and
  • taxonomy < 'order' + -nomy (- 'study of'), where the "more etymological form" is taxinomy,[1][9] as found in the , 'taxiarch', and the neologism taxidermy. Modern Greek uses ? in its reborrowing.[10]

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 ? enenekonta '90'.[11] The Greek form is, however, used in the names of polygons in mathematics, though the names of polyhedra are more idiosyncratic.

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

Some portmanteau 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): -athon or -a-thon (walkathon, from walk + (mar)athon). These often take a different meaning from that in Greek: -nomics refers specifically to economics (Reaganomics); see above for -on, -oma, -ase.

Through other languages

Some Greek words were borrowed through Arabic and then Romance. Many are learned:

However, others are popular:

  • botargo ()
  • tajine (?)
  • carat ()
  • talisman (?)
  • possibly quintal ( < Latin centenarium (pondus)).

Curiously, chemist appears to be a back-formation from alchemist.

A few words took other routes:[12]

  • Seine (a kind of fishing net) comes from a West Germanic form *sag?na, from Latin sag?na, from .
  • Effendi comes from Turkish, borrowed from Medieval Greek (/af'?endis/, 'lord').

Vernacular or learned doublets

Some Greek words have given rise to etymological doublets, being borrowed both through a later learned, direct route, and earlier through an organic, indirect route:[13][14]

Other doublets come from differentiation in the borrowing languages:

From modern Greek

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 intermediary

Many words from the Hebrew Bible were transmitted to the western languages through the Greek of the Septuagint, often without morphological regularization:

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 orthographies for Greek borrowings, including, but not limited to:

These conventions, which originally reflected pronunciation, have carried over into English and other languages with historical orthography, like French.[15] They make it possible to recognize words of Greek origin, and give hints as to their pronunciation and inflection.

The romanization of some digraphs is rendered in various ways in English. The diphthongs and may be spelled in three different ways in English:

  1. the Latinate digraphs ae and oe;
  2. the ligatures æ and oe; and
  3. the simple letter e.

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 / oedema / edema. Some words are almost always written with the digraph or ligature: amoeba / amoeba, rarely ameba; Oedipus / OEdipus, 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 - 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 (?), koine (), hoi polloi ( ), kudos (), moron (), kubernetes (?). For this reason, the Ancient Greek digraph is rendered differently in different words—as i, following the standard Latin form: idol < ?; or as ei, transliterating the Greek directly: eidetic (< ), deixis, seismic. Most plurals of words ending in -is are -es (pronounced [i:z]), using the regular Latin plural rather than the Greek -: 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);
  • kinetic (cf. cinematography);
  • krypton (cf. cryptic);
  • acolyte (< ; acoluth would be the etymological spelling, but acolythus, acolotus, acolithus are all found in Latin);[16]
  • stoichiometry (< ; 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 or includes y between consonants, it is very likely Greek, with some exceptions, such as nephew, cipher, triumph.[17]
  • 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 '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 ? but a ? in its Greek form, .


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 [n?st?k] and agnostic [ægn?st?k]; there are a few exceptions: tmesis [t(?)mi:s?s].

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 , which was not a digraph, but simply a sequence of two vowels with hiatus, as in genealogy or pancreas (cf., however, ocean, ?); the 'ea' in zeal comes irregularly from the ? in .

Some sound sequences in English are only found in borrowings from Greek, notably initial sequences of two fricatives, as in sphere.[18] Most initial /z/ sounds are found in Greek borrowings.[18]

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 (hypothesis) and (exegesis) are accented on the antepenult, and indeed the penult has a long vowel in exegesis; but because the penult of Latin exeg?sis is heavy by Latin rules, the accent falls on the penult in Latin and therefore in English.

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:

  • -: phenomenon, criterion, neuron, lexicon;
  • -?: plasma, drama, dilemma, trauma (-ma is derivational, not inflectional);
  • -: chaos, ethos, asbestos, pathos, cosmos;
  • -?: climax (? x = k + s), helix, larynx, eros, pancreas, atlas;
  • -?: catastrophe, agape, psyche;
  • -: analysis, basis, crisis, emphasis;
  • -: diabetes, herpes, isosceles.

In cases like scene, zone, fame, though the Greek words ended in -?, 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 ? and 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, /?- and ?.

Borrowings and cognates

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 /mys/ and Latin m?s, all from an Indo-European word *m?s; they are not borrowings. Similarly, acre is cognate to Latin ager and Greek , 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 translations

Greek technical terminology was often calqued in Latin rather than borrowed,[19][20] and then borrowed from Latin into English. Examples include:[19]

  • (grammatical) case, from Latin casus ('an event', something that has fallen'), a semantic calque of Greek ('a fall');
  • nominative, from Latin n?min?t?vus, a translation of Greek ?;
  • adverb, a morphological calque of Greek as ad- + verbum;
  • magnanimous, from Greek (lit. 'great spirit');
  • essence, from Latin essentia, which was constructed from the notional present participle *essens, imitating Greek .[21]
  • Substance, from Latin substantia, a calque of Greek (cf. hypostasis);[22]
  • Cicero coined moral on analogy with Greek .[23]
  • Recant is modeled on ?.[24]

Greek phrases were also calqued in Latin, then borrowed or translated into English:

The Greek word ? 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.[25]

Most common

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).[26]

See also



  1. ^ a b Oxford English Dictionary, by subscription
  2. ^ Online Etymological Dictionary, free
  3. ^ Merriam-Webster Dictionary, free
  4. ^ American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, free
  5. ^ Ayers, Donald M. 1986. English Words from Latin and Greek Elements. (2nd ed.). p. 158.
  6. ^ 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 , 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.
  7. ^ 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 ? + 'cow-cheese', possibly a calque from Scythian, or possibly an adaptation of a native Scythian word.
  8. ^ Okrent, Arika. October 8, 2014. "5 Words That Are Spelled Weird Because Someone Got the Etymology Wrong." Mental Floss. (Also in OED.)
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Andriotis et al., = Triantafyllidis Dictionary, s.v.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Skeat gives more on p. 605-606, but the Oxford English Dictionary does not agree with his etymologies of cobalt, nickel, etc.
  13. ^ Walter William Skeat, A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, "List of Doublets", p. 599ff (full text)
  14. ^ Edward A. Allen, "English Doublets", Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 23:2:184-239 (1908) doi:10.2307/456687 JSTOR 456687
  15. ^ Crosby, Henry Lamar, and John Nevin Schaeffer. 1928. An Introduction to Greek. section 66.
  16. ^ Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, s.v.
  17. ^ Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, 1897, s.v., p. 4432
  18. ^ a b Hickey, Raymond. "Phonological change in English." In The Cambridge Handbook of English Historical Linguistics 12.10, edited by M. Kytö and P. Pahta.
  19. ^ a b Fruyt, Michèle. "Latin Vocabulary." In A Companion to the Latin Language, edited by J. Clackson. p. 152.
  20. ^ Eleanor Detreville, "An Overview of Latin Morphological Calques on Greek Technical Terms: Formation and Success", M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, 2015, full text
  21. ^ Joseph Owens, Étienne Henry Gilson, The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics, 1963, p. 140
  22. ^ F.A.C. Mantello, Medieval Latin, 1996, ISBN 0813208416, p. 276
  23. ^ Wilhelm Wundt et al., Ethics: An Investigation of the Facts and Laws of the Moral Life, 1897, p. 1:26
  24. ^ 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
  25. ^ Scheler, Manfred. 1977. Der englische Wortschatz. Berlin: Schmidt.
  26. ^ New General Service List, [1]


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