There are perks to knowing Greek as a schoolgirl. You are the only one in your class to understand what “microbe” is without running to the dictionary. Besides just knowledge, there is a deeper wisdom that knowing words in a different language, especially Greek, bestows you. Psychologists claim that the language you are born with shapes the way you see the world and make sense of it around you. It literally colors, shapes, and orders your world.
For me, breaking down Greek words into their roots, the etymology of Greek words, provides a small insight into the mind of the ancient Greeks. They are kernels of philosophy unto themselves. The fact that a word even exists in a language gives insight into the importance of the schema (from Greek “shape” or “outward physical form”) of the abstract value or ideal it tries to capture in the culture. Here is just a random list of the kernels of Greek wisdom robed in the layers of their word histories.
1 “Idiotes” “a private individual, self centered, one not actively involved in the civic voting process.”
In Ancient Athens, contributing to politics and society in general was considered the norm and highly desirable. Those who didn’t take part were considered apolitical and selfish; this was frowned upon and all citizens aspired to be politically active. It was rare for citizens to demonstrate apathy towards what was happening in their state and common issues. The overwhelming majority of Athenians participated in politics to a greater or lesser extent. (Of course, the ancients got the woman issue all wrong as they did not give citizenship status to women).
Those who did not contribute to politics and the community were known as “Idiotes” (ΙΔΙΩΤΕΣ),originating from the word “Idios” (ΙΔΙΟΣ) which means the self. If you did not demonstrate social responsibility and political awareness you were considered apathetic, uneducated and ignorant. The word was transferred to latin as “idiota” and was used to describe an uneducated, ignorant, inexperienced, common person.
Considering the above, it is easy to identify how the primary form and meaning of the word mutated to modern“idiot”. Most importantly it is worth noting that ancient Greeks valued political participation and collective governance. A completely different state of mind from what we see in most societies today where most demonstrate apathy to what happens around them. It is not far from the truth to conjecture that the majority of Americans are “idiotes” based on the percentage of non-voters in the previous elections.
2-“Kairos” the perfect time; the delicate or perfect or crucial moment; the fleeting rightness of time and place that creates the opportune atmosphere for action words or movement.” We all know how “timing is everything.” When your girlfriend is just at that right mood, you can pop the question. When you’ve just had a winning sales streak, that’s when to ask your boss for the raise. When your opponent’s army is stuck in winter storms, that’s when you unleash the invasion. The Greeks knew this too. That’s why the word “Kairos” carries all that meaning in just one punch. It is the economy of Greek words and phrases, the ability to capture a compendium of explanation in one or two words that is extraordinary.
3 “Oniomania” the frenzy for buying things. You know that girlfriend of yours in Macy’s who racks up $500 in credit card debt in less than two hours, there’s a word to describe her–“oniomaniac” someone who just can’t stop buying things. Not me! I don’t have that disease. I have “aprati” the love of collecting beautiful things.
The Greeks nailed it. As nuanced understanders of human character, they have many words that apply to psychological states, “belonephobia: the excessive fear of needles” “plegmatic” full of phlegm or despondent, depressive,” “lethargic” as slow-moving, forgetful and lazy as the river in hell named Lethe.
4 I am not a morning person. Just the struggle of getting out of bed in the early morning hours is a war of my soul. Believe it or not, the Greeks had a word to capture this hellish condition, “clinomania” the excessive desire to stay in bed.” They even had a word to capture that in-between state of half-awakeness and half falling into sleep, that “la-la almost about to fall but can’t stop reading the page from the book,” nodding in and out of consciousness feeling. It’s called “hypnagogic” the state immediately before falling asleep.
5 “Meraki” one of my favorite concepts is “meraki” (the soul, creativity, or love put into something; the essence of yourself that is put into your work. ” The idea that when you work or make something and you put a little of you in it. When you put your passion, your soul, your love of the thing in it, it comes out better. It always does! You can taste the meraki in someone’s cooking, you can feel their passion in what they do. Let’s be honest: it’s the meraki you put into your work that makes it worthwhile. Work without meraki is just drudgery.
6 “Drapetomania” the overwhelming urge to drop everything and run away. Yup, I know what that’s like. How often have you pulled your hair tightly and screamed, “Fuck it all! I’m going to Greece! Or Timbuktu or Paris or Melbourne or anywhere but here.” I’ve been guilty of this many times in my life. But the Greeks nailed the condition in one word. Or what about “peripatetic” (my yiayia loved to come over and tell me “pame peripato”) someone who loves to walk a long time, get lost and wander. Walking makes you happy; it also helps you think. That’s why I think the Greeks did a lot of it. There were no desks in Plato’s Academy. The teachers and students would walk around a circular track and talk and walk and talk and walk.
7 As keen observers of nature, the ancient Greeks had words for the sound of the leaves and rain. “Petrichor” is the smell of the earth after the rain. You know how it smells; no need for words to describe it if you have one concept word for it all. “Psithurism” is the sound of rusting leaves. These are soothing concepts for a “nemophilist” someone who haunts the woods and loves its solitude and beauty. Get me into a forest and let me walk and get lost; I’m happy. I don’t feel so weird because there is a word that describes a whole category of people just like me.
8 The Greeks were the first psychologists. Their words describe so many psychological states they could have written the DSM in Greek. You know those people who are lost in fantasy worlds. They have a “paracosm: Greek. A detailed imaginary world created inside one’s mind. This fantasy world may involve humans, animals, and things that exist in reality; or it may also contain entities that are entirely imaginary, alien, and otherworldly.” Or those other delusional types, who can’t see the bitter realities in front of them and always sugar coat their lives. The ones who go around wearing rose-tinted glasses. These suffer from “kalopsia” seeing everything from a better perspective than what it is. And you know how the older you get, the faster times speeds up? They called that “zenosyne” the sense that time keeps going faster.
9 “Ataraxia: the inability to get shook up; tranquility and balance.” Wikipedia explains it as the only true happiness possible for a person. It signifies the state of robust tranquility that derives from eschewing faith in an afterlife, not fearing the gods because they are distant and unconcerned with us, avoiding politics and vexatious people, surrounding oneself with trustworthy and affectionate friends and, most importantly, being an affectionate, virtuous person, worthy of trust. (wikipedia). Ataraxia is the Greek equivalent of Zen. Don’t get upset over stupid people, come to terms with your own mortality, don’t ask for answers from the gods (they don’t care about humans all that much as they are more concerned about screwing each other), get some good friends around you and have some wine, but don’t be miserable and grouchy but reliable and trustworthy. That’s all folks. That’s all we can hope for in happiness from this world.
There are millions of words from ancient Greek roots used in English that provide a fascinating insight into the Greek mind. That’s the key. Keeping your mind Greek. Keeping the Greek language roots maintains the wisdom of the ancients within you. It makes you wiser and smarter. (There’s a claim for that too. Some languages such as Greek force your brain to make more synaptic connections in a sense revving up your thinking machine and making your overall smarter and quicker at processing information. Stay tuned for this post soon.