Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley
In this concise pocket-sized book, the author Alexander Tulloch presents us with a comprehensive list of Greek words which have influenced English vocabulary. His aim, which he clearly states in the Introduction, “is to concentrate mainly on the ‘surprises’, by which I mean commonly used words which may even raise classicists’ eyebrows with their Greek provenance or connections”. Current estimates suggest that in excess of 10,000 Greek words are in use in modern English.
The spread of the Greek language into other languages is partly explained by the nature of the Ancient Greeks who travelled extensively and were an outward looking race. An additional factor is the role of Greek learning in the early Church with the New Testament being originally written in Greek and a third factor is the development of scientific discovery and perspective.
In the historical process of the advancement of science, which took place around the mid-sixteenth century, words had to be found ‘to define and describe the new concepts, theories and contraptions that were now being spoken and written about. In many cases, the thinkers and inventors of the day turned to Greek to fill the void’. For example, words such as ‘machine’, ‘dilemma’, ‘diagnosis’ alongside many others came into the English language from the sixteenth century onwards.
The sub-title of this book ‘Borrowed words and their Histories’ accurately reflects the contents we find in this alphabetically arranged anthology. Each English word is discussed by providing the reader with its definition, its derivative Greek term, its derivatives in modern use and its entry date into the English language. For example, the word ‘ink’ which appeared in the thirteenth century whilst looking very English was originally being spelled in Middle English as enke, and is in fact of Greek origin. The Roman Emperors had borrowed the Greek word ‘enkauston’ (‘that which has been burned into’) to describe a substance known as encaustum which was used for signing important documents. The substance’s original use was to ‘burn’ designs into tiles and a closely related word in English is ‘caustic’.
Another interesting example in the collection is when a word completely changes its original Greek meaning as found in the word ‘Anathema’. Since the early seventeenth century this word has been used to describe ‘something dreadful, abhorrent or, as it is often described ‘an accursed thing’. In the original Greek, however, it had a totally different meaning and ‘meant something that had been offered up to the gods and would therefore have had nothing but positive associations. For the early Christians, though, it was tainted with false religious beliefs and had nothing but negative implications, which account for the meaning we attach to it today’.
This compilation of English words and their associated Greek beginnings, definitions and historical entry into our language is a fascinating etymological adventure! Anyone who has an interest in the origin, historical usage and meaning of English words and their associations with the Greek language will be very happy to peruse the contents of this scholarly work.
Imprint: Footprint Books
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