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It's All Greek To Me

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Vincent Valentine, MD
Links Editor-in-Chief
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

As we continue to improve our communication skills when running into something not understandably written, spoken or even perhaps a complicated or convoluted diagram, we turn to the old reliable dead metaphorical expression, "it's all Greek to me." Is Greek so foreign and incomprehensible? Was it because of Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar? Fortunately for us in health care the largest Greek contribution to English vocabulary is found in the scientific, medical and technical neologisms. One problem is that many of the Greek terms were introduced to English through Latin, therefore distinguishing Greek and Latin origins of words written in English is not easy. Take the words pedestrian, peon, and pediatrics. "Ped-" refers to "feet" in Latin therefore pedestrian becomes obvious or does it. Pedestrian refers to "on foot" as opposed to equestrian - "on horseback." Pedestrian also means plain, dull or prosaic. Peon cryptically comes from the Latin base "ped-" but is borrowed from French originally meaning a "foot soldier." However in Greek "ped-" means "child" which shows up in English with pediatrician. Let's cast the Latin borrowings aside and deal with the Greek origins.

With this game afoot we have "pod-" which is the Greek base for "foot." There you have the familiar words of tripod and podiatry. Our focus is on Greek vocabulary but the word "vocabulary" is of Latin origin. It would be more correct here to use the Greek derived word "lexicon." So this article will focus on the influence of Greek on the English lexicon. To begin with, Greek mythology and history have become embedded into the English lexicon and we are fortunate to recognize the Greek-like words that never existed in Greek in the lexicon of medical and scientific terminology. Unmistakably Greek words are erudite.

A word that refers to the creation and study of dictionaries is lexicography. We have "-graphy," which means to "write" or "delineate." In the sciences we have geography (delineating the earth) and bibliography (the writing of books). The root "ge-" means "earth" and "bible-" means "book." To describe writing we have words such as stenography, calligraphy, and orthography. Stenography means "tight or narrow writing" or shorthand. Calligraphy means "beautiful writing." Then there is orthography which means "correct writing" or "proper spelling."

Now for some real "linking" fun let's move to "ortho-," a Greek prefix meaning right correct, straight or true and "doxa" meaning opinion or belief which is related to "dokein" - to think. From here you have the word orthodox, the correct opinion or belief. Orthodontia or orthodontic gives you "straight" teeth while orthopedics coming through French refers to surgically correcting physical deformities which actually began in children then was later generalized to all musculoskeletal conditions.

Since we are on our medical topic, let's examine the path of the Greek root "chron-" which means "time." Easy enough we have chronicle, chronology, chronobiology and chronic. Chronic also comes in through French, going back through Latin and then to the Greek, and it originally means "of time," chronic; and refers to medical conditions that last a long time. After a review of the Corpus of Contemporary American English there is a tendency for words to occur before and after chronic; and among the most common are: disease, pain, fatigue, and illness with reference to our medical world. But along with chronic health problems there are chronic funding problems, chronic problems with discipline and of course our favorite, chronic boredom. It seems that chronic connotes a lot of negativity.

To steer away from all this negativity let's go back in time with chronology and use some logic with the root "log-" referring to "speech," "word," or "reasoning." Recall Aristotle's three rhetorical appeals, ethos (character), pathos (emotion), and logos (the appeal to reason). These are all Greek but the "log-" is found in a lot of places in English, the speech that comes before is the prologue, the speech in addition, after or at the end is the epilogue. If we think about the prefix "epi-" and note it means in addition to or after, this might help you understand the meaning of epigenetics, "after the initial genetic action" and epiphenomenon, "in addition to the primary phenomenon." Of course I make no apology for all of this Greek which actually came into English through Latin. In Greek, an apology is when you're speaking something away, meaning to "fend off a charge," then later has evolved into "an explanation accompanied by an expression of regret." I will leave the root "log-" with the other English words, analogy, logarithm, logistics, and logic, and not to mention the "new words," neologisms. To remember all of this there is the Greek root "mne-" "remember" for our famous mnemonics and then our "tendency to forget" amnesia. Of course some of the most delightful words in the English language come from Greek mythology and Greek names.

Epicurus the source of the word Epicurean gives us a pleasant influence on the English language. Epicurus tells us that "pleasure is the only possible end of rational action, and the ultimate pleasure is freedom from disturbance." But although Epicurus was thought of as votary, of unrestrained indulgence, in a strict sense Epicureanism is distinguished from hedonism which in common parlance means living for the moment. However, Epicurus advocated the renunciation of momentary pleasures in favor of more permanent ones. His greatest good was the pursuit of pleasure through the practice of virtue which today leaves us with the word epicure meaning "a person with fastidious tastes, especially in food or wine," uh-hmm, Allan Glanville.

The polar opposites of Epicurus are Procrustes and Draco. Procrustes was a robber of Attica who tortured his victims by placing them on a certain bed and stretched them or lopped off their legs to conform their body to the bed's length. Procrustean means producing conformity by cruel or violent actions. The ruthless Draco, a statesman of Athens prescribed the penalty of death for nearly all crimes, "for smaller crimes because they merited it, and for greater because he knew of no penalty more severe," according to the Century Dictionary (1914). Today, we have the word draconian meaning ruthlessly severe. While we are on punishments there was the mythical punishment of Tantalus which gives us the verb tantalize. Tantalus stood in the water in Hades unable to drink it because it would recede and unable to reach the fruit over his head. Proteus continuously changes, as can protean things.

Recall Achilles' mother held him by his heel when she dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable except for his Achilles. Today we call any kind of weakness—an Achilles' heel. Titanic refers to things that are enormous, like the Titans. Herculean tasks require the strength of Hercules; and any long journey is an odyssey. While Odysseus was on his odyssey, his son was educated by an advisor named Mentor, the source of the English word mentor today.

For a few more Greek-derived words with little time for explanation I leave you with ostracism "banishment by general consent," solecism for speaking "incorrectly," or "any violation of etiquette," and meander from the winding Meander River. For the final meandering back into healthcare is the condition acyanopsia meaning the "inability to see the color blue."

And if you are hungry for more and feel it's all Greek to you, then check out this link:

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