Saturday, December 22, 2001

Classic loans

The Greeks were the first Europeans to use an alphabet, the first to theorise about language and create the categories of literature which we take for granted today: epic, lyric and narrative. Naturally enough, English has taken many words from Greek classical literature. Language users are so familiar with some of these words that in some cases one is not even aware of their Greek origins. For instance, the word aphrodisiac, which means anything arousing or intensifying sexual desire, comes from the Greek aphrodisiakos. This in turn comes from aphrodisia, meaning sexual pleasures, and from Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty in Greek mythology.

Another frequently used word is tragedy. In literature, a tragedy is a play in a fixed format, often of a high seriousness. In colloquial usage, anything from a punctured tyre to an untimely demise is a tragedy. The word owes its origin to early Greek civilisation. A Greek bard was in the habit of wandering from village to village, reciting epic poems on the way. He was called a tragoidas, from tragos (goat) and oidos (singer). Now, what does a goat have to do with tragedy? There are three possible explanations for this. One, it is said that at an early Greek theatre-festival, a chorus was dressed in goatskins. Two, a goat was often the prize given at festivals where plays were staged. Three, these tragedy-like songs were originally sung over the dead goat sacrificed to Dionysus, the god of fertility.

Elected words
December 8, 2001
The Italian connection
November 24, 2001
Words in writing
November 10, 2001
October 27, 2001
The pickings of war
October 13, 2001
American English
September 29, 2001
September 15, 2001
Foreigners, come to stay
September 1, 2001

Word clusters
August 18, 2001

In the same vein
August 4, 2001
The cyber family
July 21, 2001
Italian friends
July 7, 2001
Random words
June 23, 2001

A source of unexpected and ever-increasing trouble is often called a Pandoraís box. While Promethean refers to someone daringly creative and original. The stories of how both became a part of the lexicon are linked. Prometheus in Greek means forethought. Superior to all the gods in guile and fraud, he stole fire from the heavens and gave it to man. He also fashioned the first mortals from clay, taught them to raise plants and use them for medicines, to cultivate the land and raise horses. He also invented numbers. The Greek gods created Pandora in order to punish Prometheus for creating and helping man. The punishment was to be the releasing of all manner of evil into manís world. All the gods participated in clothing and adorning her and giving her charms and skills, both for good and evil practices. Hence, her name, Pandora, from Greek pan (all) and dora (gifts). When Prometheus refused to marry her, she was sent to Epimetheus, his brother, who readily accepted and married her. Pandora carried to the mortal world a box, which contained all types of illness and evil along with hope, which was tightly sealed at the bottom. She induced Epimetheus to open the box, thus all troubles that have plagued mankind ever since escaped into the world. Only hope remained.

An exceedingly complicated problem or deadlock is often called the Gordian knot. This was an intricate knot tied by King Gordius of Phrygia and cut by Alexander the Great with his sword after hearing an oracle promise that whoever could undo it would be the next ruler of Asia.


Sanskrit is to Hindi what Greek is to English. One characteristic of these languages is that words borrowed from them mostly have significance beyond the colloquial. Even a simple word like prithvi refers to the earth but also signifies the vast one, just as aakasha is the luminous expanse, manushya the thinking being and sarpa the creeping one.