It’s All Greek to Me!

Ray Hudson

You Don’t Say – Vol 33 by Ray Hudson

Ray Hudson
Ray Hudson

It’s a phrase still in fairly common use meaning whatever it is I don’t understand it.

When people from around the world become part of the Canadian family, they will find the language of communication, English, is a language comprised of many other and ancient languages that have come into common use these days.

There are many words in use today from Greek.

Fortune – meaning ‘good luck’ from the Greek Godess of Luck, Fortuna.  From the god of sleep, Hypnos comes hypnosis.  You might use this therapy to take care of any phobias you may have.  Phobia comes from Phobos, son of the Greek god Ares – literally meaning fear or terror.

One of the most famous references we use is Achilles’ heel. It refers to a fatal flaw in a person or a plan. It comes from the Trojan war hero, Achilles, who was dipped in the river Styx to ensure his immortality at birth. Being held by the heel, this part did not get dipped in the river and it was the one vulnerable spot, the only vulnerable spot, on his body. History records that Achilles died as a result of an arrow wound to his heel.

After the Greek society, the Romans with the Latin language has contributed mightily to our everyday English vocabulary.  It is the base language for English and as it comes from that source, it is often referred to as a Romance (coming from the Romans) language, as are Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

How many of the following words do you use all the time not aware that they are pure latin?

Ad hoc (generally signifies a solution designed for a specific problem or task and not intended to be adaptable to other purposes), ceveat emptor (buyer beware), et cetera (means ‘and the rest’), in camera (in secret), mia culpa (my own fault).  Then there are the ‘pers’ per capita (by the head), per diem (by the day), per se (pronounced per say, means by or in itself).  I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, non sequetur, referring to something said that doesn’t make sense from what went before., literally ‘it does not follow,’ and did you think vice versa was latin? Bet you didn’t. It means the other way around, literally ‘the positions being reversed.’

We’ve all heard the label for after death investigation (on all those crime shows), post (after) mortem (death).  Another common phrase taken from Latin is quid pro quo meaning, one thing for another. I give you something, and you reciprocate with something or some service of equal value.

So much of latin has survived into modern use, likely because of three things; the Roman Catholic church which used latin in its liturgy until very recently, medicine (also historically closely aligned with religion), and the practice of law (habeas corpus, meaning ‘you have the body’).

My exploration of our language has taken some interesting turns away from Greek and Latin where major contributions derived from Hindi, Persian, Arabic, which I will explore in later columns.

For this week, however, I will leave you with great advice which, to this day, is used as the logo of the Whitehorse (as in Yukon) Star newspaper: Illegitimi non carborundum. It means don’t let the bastards grind you down. And so you shouldn’t!

Have a good week.

If you’d like to share any language issues, irritations, comments or gotcha moments, please send them to