10 Ancient Greek Roots That Can Trip You Up in Modern Greek
Many English words today have roots from Greek, particularly in fields like medicine. Does that mean you can go from expert knowledge of classical Greek literature and scientific terminology directly to rapid fire dialogue with everyday Greeks in their native tongue? Well, you could try. But you’d probably come off as a bit of a neophyte (yes, that comes from Greek). Two thousand years is a long time. Words that originated in ancient Greek can evolve considerably, even if their English counterparts retained the original definition. Here are some often used Greek words that mean something completely different than you might have thought.
1. ARCH- // AUTHORITY?
Or testicle. The Modern Greek word archídi (αρχίδι) sounds like it was derived from the Ancient Greek term for authority archí. In English i shows up in words for people who have authority (archduke, archbishop) or importance (archenemy, archangel). You might expect that archídi is some kind of authority figure, and indeed, archídon was a word once used for a lower ranked officer—but over time, its phonetic resemblance to the word for testicle (orchis) made it the slang term of choice for that instead.
2. EMPATH- // EMPATHY?
Or hatred. You might think that en- + pathos means "with passion." Or that it’s synonymous with “empathy.” But you'd be wrong. Starting with Medieval Greek, empátheia (εμπάθεια) began to take on a more negative connotation. It means "hatred" in Modern Greek.
3. MOR- // MORON?
Or baby. While the word morós means moron and comes from the root mor-, for foolish, the word moró has the same root but is heard much more often ... as the word for baby.
4. TEKNO- // CHILD?
Or boy toy. Téknon is the ancient Greek word for child, and shows up in fancy words like philoteknos (“love of one’s children”) and teknonymy (naming the parent after the child, as in “hi Emma’s mommy!”) in English. It’s rarely used to mean child in modern Greek outside of formal settings, however. Today, teknó (τεκνό) is a slang term most concisely translated as “boy toy.” So, if you’re a man in Greece and you hear someone call you that (or even moró), you know what it means.
5. PALEO- // OLD?
Or bad. The prefix palio- (παλιο-) comes from paleo, which does mean old, but a version that substitutes the ‘e’ for an ‘i’ sound emerged in modern times. It evolved from meaning simply old, to tattered (palióroucha: tattered clothing) or even bad (e.g., paliocharaktíras: bad character).
6. -POÚLOS // CHILD OF?
Or penis. Greek last names are notoriously long and very often end in –poulos (πούλος). Some that immigrated to the U.S. even shortened theirs to just Poulos. Interestingly, the word is borrowed from the Latin word pullus, which is where the English word foal comes from and also means “young bird.” In the context of last names, it means “child of” whatever male name or occupation precedes it. The prolific reproductive habits of Orthodox priests is why Papadopoulos is the most common Greek last name (and also why just Poulos isn’t a last name that would originate in Greece proper). Outside of the last name context, however, the “young bird” meaning is where we get the modern Greek poulí, which is used interchangeably with poúlos as a slang term for penis.
7. XERO- // DRY?
Or know. Xeró means dry, and is found in English medical terms like xeroderma (dry skin) and the word xerography (dry printing, the inspiration for Xerox), but the word xerólas (ξερόλας) has nothing to with that. It’s an amalgamation of the words xéro + óla, which translates quite literally to “know-it-all.”
8. EULOGY // EULOGY?
Or smallpox. A small change in accent can make make evlogiá (ευλογιά) sound like evlogía, which comes from eu- and logos to mean eulogy or blessing. In fact, it's the word for smallpox, from ευφλογία (pronounced evflogía), where flogia is from phlég-, the word for heat or flame (hence phlegm), to describe the inflammation caused by the illness.
9. HEXAPOD // SIX-LEGGED?
Or an insult. Again, the accent here makes all the difference. Exapodó (εξαποδώ) is similar to exápodo, which would be the word for a six legged creature (hex + pod). However, it is a modern amalgamation of the three word phrase éxo apó 'do, which literally means “Mr. Out of Here”—a term for someone who is undesirable.
10. PHRENO- // MIND?
Or “slow it down.” Phréno is the ancient Greek word for mind. Think phrenology, frenetic, schizophrenia. However, modern Greek imported the Latin word frenum, which means bridle—and so fréno (φρένο) is used in the context of “putting on the brakes," where it is typically heard. It still lingers in modern Greek however through ancient expressions that persist, such as sóas tas frénas, which means “of sound mind.”