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. 


Or testicle. The Modern Greek word archídi (αρχίδι) sounds like it was derived from the Ancient Greek term for authority archí. In English it 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.


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.


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).


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.”


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.


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.”

Afternoon Map
From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State

There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
Beyond Wanderlust: 30 Words Every Traveler Should Know

For those who travel, wanderlust is a familiar feeling. It’s that nagging voice in your head that says, “Yes, you do need to book that flight,” even if your bank account says otherwise. Regardless of how many passport covers this word may adorn, it doesn’t begin to cover the spectrum of emotions and experiences that can be revealed through the act of travel. Here are 30 travel words from around the world to keep in your back pocket as you're exploring this summer.


From the Latin vagari, meaning “to wander,” this 16th-century word originally meant a wandering journey. Nowadays, "vagaries" refer to unpredictable or erratic situations, but that doesn’t mean the old sense of the word can’t be invoked from time to time.


An Old English word that refers to something that’s both strange and marvelous. It's a great way to sum up those seemingly indescribable moments spent in an unfamiliar land.


Who hasn’t felt a strong desire to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you currently are? That’s fernweh, or “farsickness," and this German word has been described as a cousin of wanderlust, another German loan word.


A busy street in Hong Kong

Anyone who has traveled abroad will recognize this feeling. The French word refers to the sense of disorientation that often sets in when you step outside your comfort zone, such as when you leave your home country.


Another gift from the French, this word literally translates to “drift,” but thanks to some mid-20th century French philosophers, it can also refer to a spontaneous trip, completely free of plans, in which you let your surroundings guide you.


To peregrinate is to travel from place to place, especially on foot. Its Latin root, peregrinus (meaning “foreign”), is also where the peregrine falcon (literally “pilgrim falcon”) gets its name.


Similar to peregrinate, this word essentially means to travel over or through an area by foot. So instead of saying that you’ll be walking around London, you can say you’ll be perambulating the city’s streets—much more sophisticated.


The Grand Canyon

This English word could appropriately be used to describe the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights. Something numinous is awe-inspiring and mysterious. It's difficult to understand from a rational perspective, which gives it a spiritual or unearthly quality.


The young and the restless will want to incorporate this word into their lexicon. The adjective refers to those who are constantly moving from place to place—in other words, a nomadic existence. It stems from the Greek word peripatein (“to walk up and down”), which was originally associated with Aristotle and the shaded walkways near his school (or, according to legend, his habit of pacing back and forth during lectures).


You’re alone in a forest. It’s peaceful. The sun is filtering through the trees and there’s a light breeze. That’s waldeinsamkeit. (Literally "forest solitude." And yes, Germans have all the best travel words.)


In a similar vein, this Japanese word means “forest bathing,” and it's considered a form of natural medicine and stress reliever. There are now forest bathing clubs around the world, but you can try it out for yourself on your next camping trip. Take deep breaths, close your eyes, and take in the smells and sounds of the forest. Simple.


In those moments when you just want to run away from your responsibilities, you may consider becoming a solivagant: a solo wanderer.


This Japanese phrase literally translates to “a meal eaten sideways,” which is an apt way to describe the awkwardness of speaking in a foreign language that you haven’t quite mastered, especially over dinner.


A woman at the airport

You just booked your flight. Your heart starts racing. You’re a little nervous about your journey, but mostly you just can’t wait to get going. The anticipation, anxiety, and excitement you get before a big trip is all rolled into one word—resfeber—and you can thank the Swedes for it.


Taken from the French flâner, meaning to stroll or saunter, this word describes someone who has no particular plans or place they need to be. They merely stroll around the city at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the day as it unfolds.


This could be construed as the traditional English equivalent of flâneur. Likely stemming from the Middle English verb gadden, meaning “to wander without a specific aim or purpose,” a gadabout is one who frequently travels from place to place for the sheer fun of it. In other words: a modern-day backpacker.


Sometimes, no matter how amazing your vacation may be, you just want to come home to your bed and cats. This Welsh word sums up the deep yearning for home that can strike without warning. As Gillian Thomas put it in an interview with the BBC, “Home sickness is too weak. You feel hiraeth, which is a longing of the soul to come home to be safe.”


The karst peaks of Guilin, China

This Japanese word can be taken to mean “graceful elegance” or “subtle mystery,” but it’s much more than that. It's when the beauty of the universe is felt most profoundly, awakening an emotional response that goes beyond words.


Translating to “threshold anxiety,” this German word sums up the fears that are present before you enter somewhere new—like a theater or an intimidating cafe—and by extension going anywhere unfamiliar. The fear of crossing a threshold is normal, even among the most adventurous of travelers—but it often leads to the most unforgettable experiences.


Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you cry? That’s commuovere in action. The Italian word describes the feeling of being moved, touched, or stirred by something you witness or experience.


This Danish word refers to a warm feeling of contentedness and coziness, as well as the acknowledgement of that feeling. Although not explicitly related to this term, author Kurt Vonnegut summed up the idea behind this concept quite nicely when he said, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"


Here's one for those who have a beach trip coming up. Taken from Kwangali, a language spoken in Namibia, hanyauku is the act of tiptoeing across hot sand.


A patch of wild strawberries

This Swedish word translates to something along the lines of “place of wild strawberries,” but its metaphorical meaning is something along the lines of a "happy place." Whether it’s a hidden overlook of the city or your favorite vacation spot that hasn’t been “discovered” yet, smultronställe refers to those semi-secret places you return to time and time again because they’re special and personal to you.


This Old English word describes what might happen when you visit a place like Pompeii or a ghost town. While reflecting on past civilizations, you realize that everything will eventually turn to dust. A cheery thought.


In some Spanish dialects, the word vacilando describes someone who travels with a vague destination in mind but has no real incentive to get there. In other words, the journey is more important than the destination. As John Steinbeck described it in his travelogue Travels With Charley: “It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but doesn't greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico city but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.”


Backpackers and budget travelers, this one is for you: The Hebrew word lehitkalev translates to “dog it” and means to deal with uncomfortable living or travel arrangements.


Sun shining in the woods

This beautiful Japanese word is a good one to save for a sunny day spent in the woods. Komorebi translates to “sunshine filtering through the leaves.” Does it get any lovelier than that?

28. RAMÉ

This Balinese word refers to something that is simultaneously chaotic and joyful. It isn’t specifically a travel word, but it does seem to fit the feelings that are often awakened by travel.


Translating to a “lucky find,” this French word can be applied to that cool cafe, flower-lined street, or quirky craft store that you stumbled upon by chance. Indeed, these are the moments that make travel worthwhile.


Just in case you needed another reason to plan that trip to Yosemite, here's one last word for nature lovers. The Sanskrit word ullassa refers to the feelings of pleasantness that come from observing natural beauty in all its glory.


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