Etymologists (people who study words and their histories) should be very familiar with Ancient Greek language and culture. Latin words make up about 50% of the English language, and the Romans borrowed their mythology from the Greeks. Greek words make up another estimated 5%. So what words and phrases come directly from Greek mythology? Here are twelve!
to talk/write tediously and persistently on a particular topic. Example: “My wife is such a nag; she won’t stop harping on me about those bills!” This word comes from the Greek mythological creature, the Harpy. Harpies were birds with the heads of beautiful women (though in later mythology they were confused with other creatures and became hideous women). The Harpies were agents of justice. They abducted people and tortured guilty parties the entire way to Tartarus. The Harpies were famous, for instance, for swooping down and stealing the food of hungry persons, right before they could consume it.
Someone or something that looks too good to be true, a charismatic devil. Example: “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” We all know the story of the Trojan War. Two countries got into a big war over a beautiful woman, but the war waged on way longer than it should have because the Trojans had an impenetrable wall. Then, someone (Odysseus) got the brilliant idea to make a giant wooden horse and leave it at the gates of Troy. When the Trojans accepted it as a parting gift for surrender, they brought it into the walls of the castle. At night, Greek soldiers hiding in the horse jumped out and burned the city. Hence my poem about why this is terrible branding for a condom.
A virus that gets into a computer disguised as a friendly program. Example: “I thought I was downloading episodes of Glee, but one of them came with a Trojan.” The previous information about Greeks bearing gifts applies here.
Subject to sudden or unexpected changes in mood. Example: “The ninth Doctor had a mercurial disposition. He would go from fits of rage to sudden glee, and that was when he was truly frightening.” Mercury is the Roman name for the Greek god, Hermes. Hermes, the trickster Olympian, was unpredictable and ever shifting. As an infant, Hermes stole the cattle of Apollo and walked them backwards up a mountain to confuse his trackers. When he was finally hunted down, Hermes pretended to be a frightened child. He was brought to trial before Zeus, where he confessed the comedic escapade and was granted leniency. He then gave Apollo the lyre, which he had invented, and won him over as a friend.
Love free from romantic interest. Example: “Harry Potter and Hermione Granger have a strictly platonic relationship.” The word platonic isn’t exactly from Greek mythology, but rather from the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. In his work, Symposium, Plato wrote about Socrates’ love for young men, which was separate from romance.
A tragic weakness or flaw. Example: “I was doing so well on my new diet, but Oreo cookies are my Achilles’ heel.” Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War, was one of the most powerful mythological heroes. It was said that he was dipped in the river Styx (you know, the one in the underworld) to ensure his immortality at birth. Unfortunately, he was held by his heel, and apparently the person dipping him didn’t want to get creepy underworld water on their fingers, so his heel was the one vulnerable spot on his body that was not invulnerable. Achilles died of a wound to the heel, thus the term, Achilles’ heel.
The good fortune of having everything associated flourish. Example: “Did you know Steve Jobs cofounded Pixar? That man had the Midas Touch.” King Midas’ tale is not one of good fortune. His reward for recognizing and treating Dionysus with hospitality quickly backfired. Midas might also be one of the originators of be careful what you wish for. He was granted one wish and requested that everything he touch be turned to gold. The downside became apparent when food turned to gold as soon as it touched his lips and when his daughter ran into his arms for a hug and was also turned to gold. Lucky for Midas, his prayers to Dionysus were heard and he was given a remedy for his ailment. After washing in a particular river to rid himself of the curse, Midas detested wealth and became a worshipper of Pan.
An experienced and trusted advisor. Example: “It’s no wonder Anthony Hopkins is such an amazing actor; he had Laurence Olivier as a mentor!“ During the ten long years of The Odyssey, and the ten previous years of The Trojan War, Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, was left without a father. Athena, who was on the Greek side of the whole affair, came down to serve as a teacher to Telemachus. Her human form was named Mentor, and this is where the term comes from.
An ideal, handsome human being, usually male. Example: “Brad Pitt is seen by many as a modern Adonis.” Adonis was a beautiful young boy, who Aphrodite fell in love with because of Eros’ arrow. She gave him to Persephone to be sheltered as he grew, but his beauty was so great that Persephone refused to give him back. Adonis’ fate is left to two contradicting tales. In one tale, Artemis, jealous of his hunting skills, sent a boar after the boy. This fits with the Hercules myth, surely. In another, Ares, jealous of Aphrodite’s love, changed into the boar. Either way, the boy was gored and killed. So sad.
Passionate rage. Example: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The Furies (Roman), the Erinyes (Greek), were the Ancient Greek avengers. They were chaotic spirits of vengeance that sprouted from the remains of Uranus’ castration. The punishment of the Furies usually included complete evisceration.
Mortal enemy. Usually associated with superheros. Example: “Dr. Horrible’s nemesis is Captain Hammer, corporate tool.” Along with the gods, the Ancient Greeks had personifications. These were beings who literally were a concept. Apollo was god of the sun, but Helios was the sun. Nemesis is the Ancient Greek personification of divine retribution. Her name comes from the Greek meaning “given what is due.” Usually her retribution came for those who succumbed to hubris. By this definition, super-villains exist purely to keep the hero from getting too cocky and knock them down a peg when they do. Isn’t that an interesting revelation?
A crippling fear. Example: “You may not want to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets if you have a phobia of spiders or snakes.” Phobia comes from the name Phobos, the son of the Greek god Ares. Phobos literally meant “fear” or “terror” and was known for accompanying his father, “war”, into battle. If you want to imagine crippling fear, just picture an armed Spartan charging you with a spear.
These and many more words and phrases come from Greek Mythology. Knowing these myths can help cement these definitions in your vocabulary and reveal fascinating insights about the usage of words. In fact, learning more about Greek and Roman myths can increase your understanding of literature, art, and poetry, too! Isn’t it nice to know?
Learn more about Greek Mythology by reading some of the books in the widget below!