Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Howard Richler

The Greek language deserves a medal Add to ...

You may remember a line in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the character Gus Portokalos boasts to someone, “Say any word, and I’ll tell you how the root of that word is Greek.”

This assertion is challenged, and Gus is asked to explain the Greek provenance of the obviously Japanese word “kimono.” Gus ponders for a second and replies, “Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ah! Kimono is come from the Greek word kimona, which is mean winter. What do you wear in the winter? A robe! So, there you go!”

Gus’s chauvinistic bombast aside, it is nonetheless true that in all European languages (and even some non-European ones), the vast majority of everyday vocabulary includes words of Greek origin. The arts and sciences were born, developed and are still operating with a basically pure Greek vocabulary featuring such words as “idea,” “philosophy,” “democracy,” “magic,” “biology” and “telephone.” While the Guses of the world may have some convoluted theory as to how words connected to Olympic events such as judo, tae kwon do and softball are Greek in origin, not surprisingly we do see many Olympic Games-related words that descend from the Greek language. The Olympics themselves are named after Olympia, an ancient religious site sacred to the god Zeus that is also the place in Greece where the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BC. “Athlete” and “athletics” themselves descend from the Greek word athlētēs, a derivation of athlein – “to contend for a prize.”

In addition, one has to return to ancient Greece to understand the provenance of some Olympic events. The Greeks have been defying great odds in order to prevail way before they won the Euro Cup in 2004. In 490 BC, the heavily outnumbered Athenians defeated the invading Persians on the plains of Marathon, approximately 25 miles from Athens. Legend has it that the runner Pheidippides was chosen to carry the glad tidings back to Athens. Upon reaching the walls of the Acropolis, Pheidippides cried out, “Rejoice, we conquer!” – and promptly dropped dead; ever since, marathon runners have contemplated giving up the ghost over this arduous distance. When the modern Olympic Games were inaugurated in Greece in 1896, the distance of the marathon was set at 40,000 metres (24.85 miles) – the distance between the Marathon Bridge and the Olympic stadium in Athens. Since the 1908 Games in London, the distance has been set at 26 miles and 385 yards. The 26 miles covered the distance between Windsor Castle and White City Stadium, while 385 yards were added on so the race could finish in front of King Edward VII’s royal box.

In the unlikely event that you are asked to strip naked in a gym by a philologist, don’t freak out. The word “gymnastics” descends from its Greek parent gumnazo, which means “train naked” and comes from the word gumnós – “naked.” In ancient Greece, exercises were often performed in the nude, and at one time Olympic track meets were run in the buff because it was believed that the sun was soothing to the nerves of the back. While in practice sessions, the modern gymnast performs calisthenics, vigorous exercises to improve muscle tone and fitness. This term blends the Greek stem kalli, which means “beauty,” with the Greek word for strength, sthenos.

The Greek word for contest is athlon, and this has bequeathed to us four Olympic sports: the decathlon (10 events), the heptathlon (seven events), the pentathlon (five events) and the triathlon (three events). The pentathlon, in which contestants compete in shooting, fencing, swimming, riding and cross-country running, has an interesting history. The choice of these sports was based on the legend of a warrior who, having to convey a message to the rear of the fighting forces, had to battle on horseback with his pistol and sword. However, because his horse was killed in the struggle, he had to swim and run to complete his mission.

Though so many languages borrow from Greek, the Greek language doesn’t always receive the credit it deserves in etymological analysis. For example, “rhythmic gymnastics“ is actually doubly Greek in origin but, for the etymology of “rhythm,” the Oxford English Dictionary mentions the Latin rhythmus and the French rhythme but neglects to mention that the word is ultimately derived from the Greek rhythmós – “recurring motion.” Similarly, while English acquired the word “cycle” from French, which in turn changed the Latin word cyclus, this word in turn was an adaptation of the Greek kuklós, which means “circle.”

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobeDebate



In the know

Most popular videos »


More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular