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

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Born in Pittsburgh, educated at Yale. Practiced law in Washington DC. Moved to Colorado. Lived in Mexico. Translator and internet content writer.

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