Are you planning a visit to Greece, or just curious about the language? Greek has been spoken for more than three and a half millennia, making it the oldest of any Indo-European language – hence its moniker ‘the mother of western languages’. Discover some of the most beautiful words in Modern Greek, and explore their history and influence on languages around the world.
Explore Greece with a Local Insider on Culture Trip’s eight-day island-hopping trip from Athens to Santorini – and brush up on your Greek along the way.
Only 13.5 million people speak Greek as their mother tongue, yet its global influence is huge. Many of the key foundational texts in western philosophy – think Plato and Aristotle – and science – think maths and astronomy – were composed in Greek, so the language set the terms of debate. And Greek is the basis for words and phrases, as well as grammar and syntax rules, in languages spoken around the world, so don’t be surprised if some of these words seem familiar.
ελπίδα (el-pee-da) / hope
Elpida comes from the ancient Greek word ἐλπίς (elpis) – the personification and spirit of hope in Greek mythology, often depicted as a young woman carrying flowers or a cornucopia. Today, Elpida is a popular name for women.
χαρμολύπη (char-mo-lee-pee) / joyful mourning, sweet sorrow
Charmolipi is a compound word composed of the Greek terms for joy and sorrow, or sadness. It’s difficult to translate, but it conveys the idea of bittersweetness and having mixed feelings about something.
φιλοξενία (fil-o-ksen-i-a) / hospitality
Meaning ‘friend to the stranger”, filoksenia – in a broader sense – refers to hospitality and a welcoming and ‘what’s mine is yours’ attitude. A term with a long history, Homer’s Iliad and the Bible both refer to filoksenia. In ancient Greek culture, great emphasis was placed on hospitality, and showing generosity to those who are far from home was held as a high virtue.
υγεία (ee-yee-a) / health
Ygeia is connected to Hygieia or Hygeia, the goddess of good health, cleanliness and sanitation; the term ‘hygiene’ is derived from it. Before it became a colloquial greeting, the Modern Greek phrase ‘Geia sou or Geia sas’ – which means ‘your health’ – was used to wish someone well.
ψυχή (psee-hee) / soul
Psyhi, from which the English word ‘psyche’ is derived, comes from the ancient Greek verb ψῡ́χω (psyho, to blow) and means ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’. It is connected to Psyche, the heroine of the myth Cupid and Psyche (second century), in which the two lovers must overcome a series of obstacles standing in the way of their union. The story has often been interpreted as an allegory for the soul redeeming itself through love.
ίριδα (ee-ree-da) / iris
The Modern Greek word irida comes from Iris, the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods. According to legend, she had beautiful wings and a coat of many colours, which would create rainbows as she travelled, carrying messages from the gods of Mount Olympus to Earth. Her name later gave the meaning to the word ‘rainbow’ in ancient Greek, from which the English term ‘iridescent’ derives.
ευτυχία (ef-tee-hee-a) / happiness
This word comprises the root eu-, which means good, and tyhi meaning ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’. It can also be translated as ‘contentment’, which some might say is the truest and most consistent form of happiness.
αιώνια (e-o-nia) / eternity
This word comes from the ancient Greek term aion, meaning ‘epoch’, and gave the English language ‘aeon’, an indefinite but long period of time or describes a major division of geologic time. In astronomy and less formal contexts, an aeon refers to a time span of one billion years.
αγάπη (a-ga-pee) / love
In ancient Greek, there are many different words for love. Agapi is considered to be the highest form of love – the love two partners have for one another, the love that unites parents and their children or even the love humans have for God and vice versa. The Modern Greek term έρωτας (erotas) usually means intimate love, which has a romantic or sexual nature, whereas φιλία (filia) refers to affection and friendship.
You can now also immerse yourself in Greek culture with our premium sailing itinerary around the Greek islands.
µεράκι (me-ra-kee) / passion or absolute devotion
This word is one of the hardest to translate; to do something with meraki means to put a ‘part of your soul’ into what you’re doing. The root of this term is merak, a Turkish term meaning to do something with pleasure or as a ‘labour of love’.
νοσταλγία (nos-tal-gee-a) / nostalgia, homesickness
Nostalgia – from which the English ‘nostalgia’ and ‘nostalgic’ derive – combines the ancient Greek term nostos (which means return home or homecoming) and algos (a Homeric Greek literary term meaning ‘ache’ or ‘pain’). Algos serves as the root for the English word ‘analgesic’, which is formed with the root an– (without) and algos.
φιλότιμο (fi-lo-tee-mo) / honour and self-sacrifice
Another word that’s hard to translate is filotimo, which encompasses an array of virtues: honour, self-sacrifice, duty, courage, pride and integrity. Meaning ‘friend of honour’ or ‘love of honour’, filotimo refers to doing sometime honourable and righteous, even if it is not in your own interest. Though long considered among the highest of Greek virtues, in the earliest writings, it carried negative connotations; in The Republic (c. 375 BC) for example, Plato used it in an ironic sense to mean someone who was conceited and coveted honour.
χαλαρά (ha-la-ra) / chilled, laid-back
In short, halara means ‘Take it easy’. Often associated with the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki – known for its chilled atmosphere, relative to Athens – halara is nothing short of a lifestyle, meaning ‘relaxed’ and ‘laid-back’.
πετριχώρ (pet-ri-hor) / petrichor
Petrichor does exist in English, but it’s arguably underused. It refers to the pleasant earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry ground, particularly after a long dry spell. The word is made up of the Greek petra (stone) and īchōr (the blood of Greek gods).
ελευθερία (el-ef-the-ri-a) / freedom
Meaning ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’, eleftheria refers particularly to a state of freedom from slavery. In ancient Greece, eleftheria (also transliterated eleutheria) was an attribute of the goddess Artemis. Today, you can see the word in the Greek national motto – Eleftheria i thanatos (‘Freedom or death’) – which originated in the songs of Greek resistance against Ottoman rule.
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