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6 Greek Figures that Made it into the English Language

Yes, I love my Greek myths. Here’s another bout of guys and gals, all mortal this time, who have inspired words in our Mother Tongue.

Aesop wrote many fables featuring talking animals acting like humans. However, the underlying purpose was to instill moral values in the reader. Originally, Aesopian simply meant “characteristic of Aesop’s fables.” By the 20th century, it began to refer to writing that had a hidden meaning (much like the morals).

Draco was an Athenian legislator who created a written code of law. His laws were supposed to be exceedingly severe, yet from the fragment that survives, they don’t seem so harsh. “Even if a person commits homicide without the intention to do so, the sentence is exile.” Not too bad really. Yet, the man has been saddled with the idea of harsh laws. Now, Draco is associated with all things cruel and harsh. No doubt, the inspiration for Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter. However, today’s cruelties might be an overly strict parking attendant.

The Myrmidons were the legendary inhabitants of Thessaly, Greece. Their king is someone you might recognize: Achilles. The Myrmidons were his faithful soldiers. Myrmex means “ant” in Greek. No one is quite sure how loyal warriors came to be called ants. Some suspect that a ancestor could take the form of an ant, or that the Myrmidons themselves could become ants. Today, the ant association sticks, meaning loyal follower. However, it has a derogatory sense that the follower is a subordinate, as lowly as an ant.

Everyone knows Alexander the Great (he has Great after his name after all). Few know that his path to glory began with his father, Phillip II of Macedon. In 351 BC, a Greek named Demosthenes laid out just how dangerous Phillip was in a speech. He chastised his countrymen for their inaction. Every speech Demosthenes made after this became known as philippikoi logi (speech relating to Phillip). Today, a philippic is a tirade.

Sibylla was an aged woman who could foretell the future. Sounds dull right? Well how about that she threw herself into an ecstatic frenzy to make her predictions? She must have been good at it because her prophecies were recorded and handed down over the centuries. Eventually any such prophecy became known as a sibyl. Today, it means a prophetess or fortune-teller.

Sophists were  Greek teachers of rhetoric and philosophy. Socrates did a decent job of maligning them so that now we think of them as only shallow thinkers. Plato went so far as to describe them as charlatans who would say anything to win an argument. This evolved into a type of reasoning that seems plausible, but is in fact unsound. It can also be an argument that is used to trick the listener.

Tim Kane

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