21 Amusing Greek-Americanisms English Speakers Might Recognize


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.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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






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.


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


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






“Hot cakes.”








Menu. Comes from “bill of fare.”

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

Images: iStock
25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

Have You Heard? Trading Gossip Can Be Good for You

Like picking your nose or re-using a dirty coffee cup, trading petty observations and suspicions about others is a function of life no one takes any particular pride in. You might have been told by parents not to say anything about someone "behind their back," and gossip often involves some degree of schadenfreude. In terms of keeping a positive outlook, there's not much to be said for chattering about whether someone got a facelift or if a divorce might be imminent.

Or is there? Ben Healy of The Atlantic recently aggregated compelling data that points to gossip having surprising benefits. When two people discuss negative feelings about a third, they tend to bond over the shared hostility more than if they were sharing pleasant thoughts about him or her. The badmouthing parties also tend to enjoy a sense of accomplishment by reflecting on their own positive traits compared to the failure of others. They might even take a "lesson" from an anecdote about someone's catastrophic life, using it as a cautionary tale. If the gossip has a positive slant, it might be used as inspiration to pursue self-improvement.

That's the other surprising thing about gossip: 96 percent of the time or more, it's not overly negative. Among adolescents, it's usually used to vent about frustrations or to create conversation in pursuit of a bonding experience.  

If gossip truly is good for the soul, most of us are in luck. Talking about an absentee third person is what accounts for two-thirds of all conversation.

[h/t Atlantic]


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