The Greeks Had a Word For It

Forbears of EnglishAs described in more detail elsewhere, English has three main ancestors: Old German (including Saxon, Angle, and old Danish from Jutland), Old Norman French (including influences of the Norsemen) and Church Latin.

Our vocabulary for ideas, thoughts and abstractions comes mainly from Latin. Though it gave us directly only about 20% of the words we use day-to-day, Latin was the only written language in use before the renaissance, and it was the language of both faith and scholarship.

The story does not end there, however. Latin, in turn, was an evolution from a mixture of other dialects and languages, including a large helping from ancient Greece.

Coverage map of Hellenistic GreekFrom around 600 BC until 100 AD (from the era of Alexander the Great through the events of the New Testament) Greek was a common tongue for much of the Mediterranean. It was used in Egypt and the Holy Land, and had been exported to Italy and farther west to Southern France.

Why does this matter? It matters because a large budget of words in English are made up of Greek words, especially those terms used to describe ideas and concepts. People in most jobs may never need to use (or understand) the word “anthropomorphism,” for example. But if you go to college, rest assured that it will come up. If you know a little Greek, the word is not mysterious at all. “Anthropos” means “man” — as in mankind — and then “–morph” is a combining term meaning “having the shape of.” The “–ism” particle is, as you probably know, a flag for a belief system, practice or method of thinking. So this word means the practice of attributing human-like qualities to non-human entities, whether gods, animals or inanimate objects.

It’s fair to assume that you will not be learning Greek, especially ancient or New Testament Greek, any time soon. So the second best solution is to learn the meanings of these Greek-origin combination forms found so often in educated English writing. These are word particles that the Romans found useful to incorporate into Latin, and now, a couple of millennia later, they appear in English. They are called “morphemes,” and the study of them is one of the three areas embraced within the general heading of “grammar.” Here I’ve included them under “Vocabulary.”

What follows is a table of 95 morphemes that come to us from Greek, together with their meanings and examples of English words that contain them. The Greek word is also given, in the Greek alphabet (which you would do well to learn) and in our alphabet (called the Latin alphabet). If you master these morphemes, you will have the key to thousands of English terms. The table is paginated in groups of 20.

Greek Morphemes

 MeaningExampleIn English Usage
acr-height, summit, tipἄκρος (ákros) "high", "extreme"acrobatics, acrophobia, acropolis
aero-air, atmosphereἀήρ, ἀέρος (āḗr, āéros) "air"aerobic, aerodynamic, aeronautics, aerosol
aesth-feeling, sensationαἰσθάνεσθαι ( aisthánesthai ) "to perceive"aesthetics, anaesthetic
aether-, ether-upper pure, bright airαἴθειν ( aíthein ), αἰθήρ ( aithḗr )ether, ethereal
alg- painἄλγος ( álgos ), ἀλγεινός, ἀλγεῖν ( algeîn ), ἄλγησις ( álgēsis )analgesic, neuralgia, nostalgia
amph-, amphi-both, on both sides of, both kindsἀμφί (amphí) "on both sides"amphibious, amphitheatre
an-, a-, am-, ar-not, withoutἀν-/ἀ- "not"ambrosia, anaerobic, anhydrous, atheism, atypical
anem-windἄνεμος (ánemos)anemometer, anemone
ant-, anti- against, opposed to, preventiveἀντί (antí) "against"antagonize, antibiotic, antipodes
anthrop-humanἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos) "man"anthropology, misanthrope, philanthropy
archae-, arche-ancientἀρχαῖος ( arkhaîos ) "ancient" from ἀρχή ( arkhḗ ) "rule"archaeology, archaic
arct-Relating to the North Poleἄρκτος (árktos) "bear" (Ursa Major), ἀρκτικός (arktikós)Antarctica, Arctic Ocean
aster-, astr-star, star-shapedἄστρον ( ástron ) "star"aster, asterisk, asteroid, astrology, astronomy, astronaut
aut-, auto-self; directed from withinαὐτός (autós) "self", "same"autarchy, authentic, autism, autocracy, autograph, automatic, autonomy
bapt- dipβάπτειν (báptein)baptism, baptize
bio-, bi-lifeβίος ( bíos ) "life"biography, biohazard, biology
botan-plantβοτάνη, βότανον (botánē, bótanon)botanist, botany
cardi-heartκαρδιά (kardía)cardiac, cardiology, electrocardiogram
caust-, caut-burnκαυστός/καυτός (kaustós)calm, caustic, cauterize, holocaust
chore-relating to danceχορεία ( khoreia ) "dancing in unison"choreography, chorus
chrom-colorχρῶμα (chrōma)chromatic, chrome, chromosome, monochrome
chron-timeχρόνος (chronos)anachronism, chronic, chronicle, chronology, chronometer, synchronize
-cracy, -cratgovernment, rule, authorityκράτος (krάtos), κρατία (kratía)aristocracy, autocrat, bureaucracy, democrat, plutocracy, technocrat, theocracy
crypt-hiddenκρύπτειν ( kruptein ) "to hide"apocryphal, cryptic, cryptography
dec-tenδέκα ( déka ) "ten"decade, Decalogue, decathlon
dem-peopleδῆμος (dēmos)demagogue, democracy, demography, epidemic
di-twoδι- ( di- )diode, dipole
dia-apart, throughδιά (diá)diagram, dialysis, diameter
dyna-powerδύναμις (dúnamai)dynamic, dynamite, dynamo, dynasty
ec-outἐκ (ek)eccentric, ecstasy, ecstatic
eco-houseοἶκος (oikos)ecology, economics, ecumenism
ep-, epi-above, upon, outerἐπί (epi)epicenter, epidemic, epitaph, epiphany
ethn-people, race, tribe, nationἔθνος (ethnos)ethnic, ethnicity
eu-well, goodεὖ (eu)euphoria, euthanasia, eulogy
ger-oldγέρων, γέροντος (gérōn, gérontos)geriatric, gerontocracy
gloss-, glot-tongueγλῶσσα (glóssa), γλωττίς (glōttís)epiglottis, gloss, glossary, polyglot
glyph-carveγλύφειν (glúphein)glyph, glyptograph, petroglyph
graph-draw, writeγράφειν ( gráphein )autograph, graph, graphic, graphite, holograph, monograph, orthography, paragraph, photograph, telegraphy
gymn-nudeγυμνός (gumnós)gymnasium, gymnastics
hemi-halfἥμισυς (hēmisus)hemicycle, hemisphere
heter-different, otherἕτερος (heteros)heterodoxy, heterogeneous, heterosexual
hol-wholeὅλος (holos)holistic, holography
hom-sameὁμός (homos)homogeneous, homophone, homonym, homosexual
hydr-waterὕδωρ (hudōr)dehydrate, hydrant, hydraulic, hydrogen, hydrolysis, hydrophily, hydrophobia, hydrous
hyp-underὑπό (hupo)hypoallergenic, hypodermic, hypothermia
hyper-above, overὑπέρ (huper)hyperactive, hyperbole
hypn-sleepὕπνος (hupnos)hypnosis, hypnotize
idi-own, peculiarityἴδιος (ídios), "private, personal, one's own"idiom, idiosyncrasy, idiot
is-, iso-equal, sameἴσος (ísos)isometric, isomorphic, isosceles
kine-, cine-movement, motionκινεῖν ( kineîn ), κίνησις ( kínēsis ), κίνημα ( kínēma )cinema, kinesthetic, kinetic, telekinesis
klept-stealκλέπτειν ( kléptein)kleptomania, kleptocracy
lith-stoneλίθος (lithos)megalith, Mesolithic, monolith, Neolithic
log-, -logyword, reason, speech, thoughtλόγος ( logos ), λογία ( logia )apology, dialogue, etymology, eulogy, logic, monologue, neologism, prologue, terminology, theology
macro-longμακρός (makrós)macrobiotic, macroeconomics, macron
maniamental illness, crazinessμανία (manίā)kleptomania, mania, maniac, pyromania
meta-above, among, beyondμετά (metá)metabolism, metamorphosis, metaphor, metaphysics, meteor, method
meter-, metr-measureμέτρον (métron)barometer, diameter, isometric, meter, metronome, parameter, perimeter, symmetric, telemetry, thermometer
micro-smallμικρός (mikrós)microcosm, microeconomics, micrometer, microphone, microscope
mim-repeatμιμεῖσθαι ( mīmeîsthai ), μίμος ( mimos )mime, mimeograph, mimic, pantomime
mis-hateμισεῖν ( miseîn )misanthrope, misogynist, misotheism
mne-memoryμνήμη (mnēmē)amnesia, amnesty, mnemonic
mon-alone, oneμόνος (mónos)monarchy, monastery, monolith, monopoly, monotone
mor-foolish, dullμωρός (mōrós)moron, oxymoron, sophomore
morph-form, shapeμορφή (morphē)amorphous, anthropomorphism, endomorph, metamorphosis, morpheme, morphology, polymorphic
myth-storyμῦθος (mûthos)myth, mythic, mythology
narc-numbνάρκη (narkē)narcolepsy, narcosis, narcotic
naut-shipναύτης ( nautes )astronaut, nautical
ne-, neo-newνέος (neos)Neolithic, neologism, neonate, neophyte
necr-deadνεκρός (nekros)necrophobia, necrotic
nom-arrangement, law, orderνόμος (nomos)astronomy, autonomous, gastronomy, metronome, numismatic, polynomial, taxonomy
-oidlike-οειδής (-oeidēs)asteroid, humanoid, organoid
olig-fewὀλίγος ( oligos )oligarchy, oligopoly
pan-allπᾶς, παντός (pas, pantos)Pan-American, panacea, pandemic, pandemonium, panoply
path-feeling, diseaseπάθος (pathos)antipathy, apathy, empathy, pathetic, pathology, sociopath, sympathy
peri-aroundπερί (perí)perimeter, period, periphery, periscope
pher-, phor-bear, carryφέρω ( pherō ), φόρος ( phoros )metaphor, pheromone
phil-, -philelove, friendshipφιλέω (phileō)bibliophile, philanthropy, philharmonic, philosophy
phob-fearφόβος (phobos)acrophobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, hydrophobia
phos-, phot-lightφῶς, φωτός ( phōs , phōtos )phosphor, phosphorus, photic, photo, photoelectric, photogenic, photograph, photosynthesis
physi-natureφύσις (phusis)physics
plut-wealthπλοῦτος (ploutos)plutocracy
pneu-air, breath, lungpnein, πνεῦμα (pneuma)apnoea, pneumatic, pneumonia
pod-footπούς, ποδός ( pous , podos )antipode, podiatry, tripod
pole-, poli-cityπόλις (polis)acropolis, cosmopolitan, metropolis, police, policy, politics
polem-warπόλεμος (polemos)polemic, polemology
poly-manyπολύς (polus)polyandry, polygamy, polygon, polytheistic
pro-before, in front ofπρό (pro)prologue, prominent
prot-firstπρῶτος (prōtos)protagonist, protocol, protoplasm, prototype, protozoan
pseud-falseψευδής (pseudēs)pseudonym
psych-mindψυχή (psuchē)psyche, psychiatry, psychology, psychosis
scop-, scept-look at, examine, view, observeσκέπτομαι, σκοπός (skeptomai, skopos)horoscope, microscope, periscope, skeptic, stethoscope, telescope
soma-bodyσῶμα, σώματος (sōma, sōmatos)psychosomatic, somatotype
soph-wiseσοφός (sophos)philosophy, sophistry, sophistication, sophomoric
syn-, sy-, syl-, sym-withσύν (sun)symbol, symmetry, sympathy, synchronous, synonym
tele-far, endτῆλε (tēle)telegram, telemetry, telepathy, telephone, telescope, television
xen-foreignξένος (xenos)xenogamy, xenophobia, xenon

Hanged or Hung?

English has two verbs that are identical in the present tense, and close enough in meaning to cause trouble: hang/hanged/hanged and hang/hung/hung.

eliza doolittle
Eliza Doolittle

Ironically, in Lerner and Lowe’s great musical success, My Fair Lady, linguist and grammar purist Henry Higgins makes this very mistake in the opening lines of his first song, “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?” He says, of Cockney Eliza Doolittle:

By rights she should be taken out and hung
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.”


The “hang” that uses “hanged” as its past tense and past participle means to execute someone on the gallows.

hang picture

The “hang” that uses “hung” as its past tense and past participle means to suspend, as a picture on a wall.

So Henry Higgins should have said, “taken out and hanged.” But then, of course, the rhyme with “English tongue” would disappear. We’ll call it poetic license, perhaps.

In short, persons executed in the old-fashioned way were “hanged” and everything else that is suspended is “hung.”

this bigCuriously, the word “hung” is also used in slang to refer to a sexually well-endowed male. This is the usage that makes the following joke possible: “Did you hear about the plastic surgeon who hung himself?” If you don’t know the difference between these two verbs, you would wonder what was supposed to be funny.



“Much”, “Many”, “Less” and “Few”

fewer lessWhat is wrong with this phrase: “A large amount of persons”? It should pop right out at you — “persons” do not come in amounts or quantities; they come as individuals. They are countable. Aggregated, they become “many,” not “much.” Reduced in number, they are “few,” not “a little.” You can refer to them as “each one” or “every one,” and the “one” should remind you that you are in a category that is countable.

What is wrong with this phrase: “A large number of wheat”? It is the reverse situation: “Wheat” is a bulk noun. It is not countable. Units of wheat are countable, such as bushels or grains, but the substance itself is without individual members. In the aggregate, it is “much wheat,” not “many wheats.” You do not say “few wheats,” but rather, “less wheat.”

It’s hard to imagine why so many persons struggle with this distinction. Perhaps it is because the adjective “some” can refer both to countable nouns (number) and uncountable nouns (amount). The trouble starts when you add to it or take  something away:

  • Add to “some,” and you may find you have “many” (number) or “much” (amount).
  • Take away part of it, and you have “few” (number) and “a little” (amount).
  • The comparative “more” is used to express an increase in both number and amount. In the superlative, “most” is used in both contexts as well.
  • On the side of diminution, however, the picture changes: The comparative “less” is reserved for uncountable nouns (amount) and “fewer” is used for number. In the superlative, “least” is reserved for amount and “fewest” for number.

This is not a matter of style or preference: these words must be used in this way, or else your English is wrong. There’s no argument about it. Here is a quick summary:

Quantitative Adjectives

Superlative FormMostFewestMostLeast
Comparative FormMoreFewerMoreLess
Adjective FormManyFewMuchA little

A postscript: In informal speech, it is a mannerism to say “a lot of” (or “alotta”) instead of much or many. There is no word “alot.” Try to wean yourself from it, and use “much” or “many” or some more definite quantifier. A good one is “plenty”; another is “enough.” Here are a few more quality substitutes:

abundant, adequate, ample, complete, considerable, copious, countless, endless, galore, generous, heaps, immeasurable, lavish, loads, plenteous, plentiful, prodigious, profuse, sizable, substantial, sufficient, voluminous.

Put “a lot of” in the same category as “kind of”: fallback phrases used by habit, to avoid going to the trouble of figuring out what you really think and then expressing it.

Tricky Word Goofs

Some words and phrases are so similar to other words and phrases that it is easy to mix them up. For example, “wait on” and “wait for.” (That one has a page all to itself on this site.) Here are a few others:

fartherfurther / farther — “Further” means “in addition” or “more deeply”; “farther” means “more distant.” “Further” should be used for abstract nouns or concepts. It is not a comparative; that is, there is no “fur,” and “further” is not more “fur” than something else.  It means “in addition” or “in extension.” “Farther,” on the other hand is a comparative. It means “more far,” and is reserved for matters in the physical world. The Ford Motor Company recently formed an advertising campaign around the slogan “Go Further.” In a Ford? Few have raised hell about it, which indicates that most Americans do not know about the difference, or do not care. The two terms have been used interchangeably for decades, if not longer, and sometimes by careful and educated writers. If you care about the difference (and I believe you should), remember: To “go further” means to delve more deeply into the subject being discussed, to elaborate. To cover more distance, one needs to “go farther.”

A continuous (unbroken) function

continuous / continual — “Continuous” is unceasing, like the continuous ringing of a fire alarm. “Continual” occurs frequently, but is intermittent, as in “I am proud of your continual high performance in Math.” A river flows continuously (without interruption); a spoiled child whines continually (very frequently).


effect / affect — As nouns, “effect” means the result of some action, where as “affect” means an observable emotional response of a person to interactions with others. As verbs, “effect” means to bring about; “affect” means to have influence on or over something. Simply put, they are two different words: Anyone paying attention to his or her usage should have no trouble avoiding this mistake.

Inoperative, obviously

inoperative / inoperable — “Inoperative” means “out of order,” “not working.” “Inoperable” refers to a condition that can not be remedied by a surgical procedure. If someone says that the drink machine is “inoperable,” it means that whatever is wrong with it cannot be cured by the intervention of a surgeon: probably not what the person had in mind.


uninterested / disinterested — “Uninterested” means bored, unconcerned or impassive with respect to something. “Disinterested” means neutral, or having no stake in the outcome of something. We hope our football referees are disinterested in the game, but we certainly do not want them to be uninterested in it.



ingenious / ingenuous — “Ingenious” is clever or imaginative. “Ingenuous” is naive, gullible, not at all clever. The words are not quite antonyms, in that “ingenious” applies to plans, actions, maneuvers and the like; “ingenuous” describes the artless quality in a person. (Curiously, we also have “disingenuous,” which means insincere, usually by feigning ignorance.)



“likely” to explode, not “liable”

likely / liable — “Likely” means “probable.” In your father’s or grandfather’s schools days, “liable” meant exclusively “legally answerable or obligated.” It was never to be used to describe the possibility of some future event. A person who was liable to do something was obliged to do it. It was wrong to write, “That moonshine still is liable to blow up!” unless there was some obligation on the part of the “still” to explode. Another word, “apt,” enters the discussion. It means “qualified,” “capable” or “ready.” A student who is apt to take a certain course has met all the prerequisites for that particular study. “Apt to” does not mean “likely.” In recent times, “liable,” “likely” and “apt” have come to be used almost interchangeably. Some authorities even accept them as synonyms with slightly differing shades of meaning. Personally, I regard that as adding confusion to an already muddled subject. Simplicity would counsel you to use “likely” for probable, “apt” for qualified or ready, and “liable” for obligated or obliged.

Barbaric (cruel)

barbarous / barbaric — historically, these words have been used interchangeably, but often with a subtle differentiation: “barbarous” emphasizes the crudity of the person, group, tradition or action; “barbaric” emphasizes its cruelty. Thus, a “barbarous” tribe is uncivilized, whereas a “barbaric tribe” is bloodthirsty and cruel. Historically, the words evolved on parallel paths, and so this distinction is more a modern effort to give different meanings to different words. It seems like a good idea.


immoral / amoral — English has thousands of words that can take prefixes to modify their meanings. For example, “moral” means adhering to acceptable rules and standards of conduct. “Immoral” negates it in the same way that “im-” turns “possible” into “impossible.” “Amoral” simply says that morality is not involved. An “amoral person” does not adhere to behavioral norms because he or she neither acknowledges nor adopts them. Such a person simply has no morals, for good or for ill. For this reason, “amoral” is often confused with “immoral” in the context of a normative society. In general, the prefix “a-” means “without.” A common example is “apolitical,” which means that no political positions are involved.

“Bring”; “Take” would show his other end.

bring / take — Try to avoid this mistake. These two verbs involve carrying something, and their difference involves the point of view of the person using the word. If the carrying is towards or along with the utterer, then it is “bring“; If the carrying is away from the utterer, then it is “take.” The mistake most often happens when a departing person is asked to “bring” something with him (meaning “take”).

Word Confusions (Malapropisms)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816).
Richard Brinsley Sheridan

We have Richard Brinsley Sheridan to thank for the term “malapropism.” Mrs. Malaprop is a comic character in his play, The Rivals, which was first performed in London on January 17, 1775. (It was said to have been George Washington’s favorite play.)

Mrs. Malaprop’s name literally means “inappropriate.” In the play she comically confuses words that sound similar, but have much different meanings. She famously said that a man was “the very pineapple of politeness,” meaning, of course, “pinnacle.”

mrs malaprop
Mrs. Malaprop

She also referred to “contagious countries” when she meant nations that border on each other: contiguous. In Act III she comments that a certain person is “as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.” Clearly, she meant to say “alligator.”

I have a good friend from college who, for his entire life, has never “cast aspersions” on anything. He always says, “cast asparagus” instead. Curly of the Three Stooges always used to say, “I resemble that remark,” meaning, of course, that he resented it.

Tony Abbott, when Prime Minister of Australia, wanted to say that no one knows everything. Instead, he said that no one “is the suppository of all wisdom”; and that could be true, perhaps. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley once referred to a meeting of “Alcoholics Unanimous.”

Word confusions are funny, especially when the speaker says them knowingly and with a wink. They can be irritating as well. For example, there is a big difference between a “false pretense” and a “pretext” (which, by definition, is always false); yet, these two words are used incorrectly as often, perhaps, as they are put to the right use.

Add your favorite malapropisms in the comments.