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21 Amusing Greek-Americanisms English Speakers Might Recognize

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In the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, fictional Greek-American small business owner Gus Portokalos repeatedly issues a bold linguistic challenge: “Give me a word—any word—and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek.” Unfortunately for him, most words in the English language don’t come from Greek. To be sure, there are fields like medicine where English terminology has a very high concentration of words of Greek origin. When looking at the totality of the language however, Greek only accounts for a small but significant percentage of loanwords.

In actuality, Greek-Americans have generally been exemplars in the practice of borrowing words in the opposite direction: from English to Greek. But people living in Greece have historically resisted foreign loanwords. The result is that people who are versed in standard modern Greek will sometimes have a hard time following a conversation between two first- or second-generation Americans of Greek descent. They’ll encounter phrases that sound hellenized, but which aren’t taught in Greek schools. I speak from personal experience. My own knowledge of Greek comes primarily from speaking it at home from a very young age in Athens, Greece where I was born and lived until I was 25.

Perhaps the most thorough examination of the vocabulary of Greeks abroad was undertaken by linguist P. David Seaman for his doctoral dissertation in the 1960s under the title Modern Greek and American English in Contact. Seaman’s view was that environmental factors in the U.S. made spoken Greek there “less static”: “In the basically monolingual society of America, bilingualism is a 'task' imposed upon the immigrant, and it remains a task as long as he keeps trying to learn English.” This was in contrast to Greece where “bilingualism is a choice.” He also found that one very large religious and cultural institution prominent in the lives of Greek-Americans—the Orthodox Church—advocated for “stilted Katharevousa” (a largely abandoned version of Greek that is a cross between modern and ancient). Seaman concluded: "Modern Greek is not usually subject to positive reinforcement in the United States."

Seaman’s research focused primarily on the sizable Greek community of the Chicago area, but his conclusions can probably be generalized for the rest of the U.S. and other English-speaking places like Australia, Canada, and South Africa with large concentrations of Greek immigrants.

In recent years however, even people in Greece seem to slowly be altering their vocabulary in much the same way. Bilingualism is less of a “choice” in today’s more cosmopolitan Greek society than it was 50 years ago. Today there are hundreds of informal loanwords from English to Greek. No doubt certain phrases are in use more widely than others, while many have fallen by the wayside. Below is a list of some of the quirkiest and most amusing to speakers of either language.

1. BILOZÍRIA

“Below zero.” The phrase plakósane ta bilozíria means that cold winter temperatures have begun.

2. FRIZARAN TA LÉKIA

After it’s been bilozíria for a while, you might use this phrase, based on “the lakes have frozen.”

3. PLAMADÓROS

What do you do when the pipes have burst because of those freezing temperatures? Call the plamadóros, or “plumber.”

4. MOROVÍKOS

A handy way to refer to the “(Department of) Motor Vehicles.”

5. KASTIGÁRI

The pre-Ellis Island immigration center “Castle Garden”—even after the center itself closed, the term remained in use in reference to immigration checkpoints.

6. KOUKOMPOÚKO

This coinage is “cookbook,” but it’s used to denote specifically English-language cookbooks. Greek cookbooks are tselementés.

7. DARÁIT!

A whole English phrase condensed into a Greek word: “That’s right!”

8. ARONÓOU

Another condensed phrase, this comes from “I don’t know.” It’s used to highlight indifference to remembering what the speaker perceives to be unimportant information.

9. MARKÉTA

Greek has its word for “market,” agora, but Greek Americans added markéta.

10. SPITÁLI

“Hospital.”

11. PENTÉFI

“PDF.” 

12. TOÚMPOULOUROU

The blogging platform Tumblr tried to cut down on the number of vowels in its name, but this Greekism adds a few more back into the name for good measure.

13. SOPÁS

Used for the proprietor of either an online “shop” (e-sopás) or pet shop (pet sopás). There is no ‘sh’ sound in Greek.

14. ÉVALES KORÁKI STI MÍTRA?

In other words, “Did you put a ‘quarter’ in the ‘meter’?”

15. ROÚFI

“Roof.”

16. SIMITRÉLA

“Semi-trailer.”

17. CHATIKÉKIA

“Hot cakes.”

18. PINÓTSI

“Peanut.”

19. KAKARÓTSA

“Cockroach.”

20. OPERÉTA

“Operator.”

21. BILOFÉRI

Menu. Comes from “bill of fare.”

Sources: Lingua GrecaSarantakosP. David Seaman (1972)slang.grManolis Tryantafyllidis (1952) "Greeks in America"

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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