After my father’s refusal to let me study Latin with the nuns in Catholic school, my taste for dead languages lay dormant until around 1982 A.D., when I had been at The New Yorker for about four years. One weekend, I saw “Time Bandits” in a theatre on the Upper East Side. In the film, directed by Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, and starring John Cleese and Michael Palin, a band of time-travelling dwarfs plunder treasure from the past. One scene, set in ancient Greece, featured Sean Connery in a cameo as Agamemnon. He was duelling with a warrior who wore the head of a bull and looked like the Minotaur. The landscape was so stark and arid, and so enhanced by the mighty figure of Sean Connery in armor, that I wanted to go there right away.
My boss at the time, Ed Stringham, the head of the collating department, was famous at the office for his eccentric schedule and rigorous course of studies. He came in at about noon and held court from a tattered armchair by the window (kept firmly closed), smoking cigarettes and drinking takeout coffee. When I told him I wanted to go to Greece, he got all excited. There was a map of Europe on the wall, and he showed me where he had gone on his first trip to Greece. He’d taken a cruise, he said, apologetically, to get an overview: Athens, Piraeus, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Constantinople. He pointed out Mt. Athos, the Holy Mountain, a peninsula reserved for Orthodox monks, where no female, not even a hen, was welcome. Then he plucked a slim paperback off a nearby shelf—“A Modern Greek Reader for Beginners,” by J. T. Pring—bent over it till his eyes were inches from the page, and started to translate.
“You can read that?” I said, astonished. It had never occurred to me that a person could become literate in a language that was written in a different alphabet. Before long, Ed had become my mentor in all things Greek. There were two major forms of the modern language: demotic, which is the people’s language, and Katharevousa, puristic Greek, which was devised by some intellectual Greeks in the early nineteenth century to yoke the modern language to its glorious past. Until the nineteen-seventies, Katharevousa was the official language of Greece, used in legal documents and news reporting, although people rarely spoke it. Ed encouraged me to find a class in demotic Greek. In those days, The New Yorker routinely covered the tuition for employees who studied a subject with some bearing on their work. So I registered at N.Y.U.’s School of Continuing Education for a class in modern Greek.
The first words I learned were ílios, “sun,” and eucharistó, “thank you.” To remember words in a foreign language, you make associations with your own tongue, and it thrilled me to realize that the Greek ílios had come into English as Helios. What in English is the sun god is, in Greek, the everyday word for the sun. Greek seemed to exalt the everyday. In eucharistó, I recognized Eucharist, the bread and wine that miraculously become the body and blood of Christ. In Greece, this word—pronounced “efkharisto”—gets tossed around several times an hour. The English “thank you” does not carry the reciprocal meaning of a gift both granted and received in the sense that glows out of Eucharist: the prefix eu, as in Eugenia (wellborn) or “euphemism” (nice, kind, gentle phrase), plus cháris, from which come “charisma” and “charism” (used by religious communities to mean a particular vocation or gift). The Greek term is an exchange of grace.
In that first class, one night a week at N.Y.U., I learned the Greek words for food and for numbers and for the seasons. The words for the seasons are especially beautiful in modern Greek. Spring is ánoixi, from the verb ανοίγω, “open, uncork”—the year opens. Summer is kalokaíri: “good weather.” Phthinóporo is the fall, suggestive of the last harvest and overripe fruit (the consonant cluster at the beginning, “phth,” at first seems rude to an English speaker, as if you were spitting out a cherry pit). Winter, kheimónas, is a time of storms and of scraping by till spring.
Ed and I commiserated over the confusion that reigns between the Greek for “yes” and “no.” The German ja and nein have a clear resemblance to “yes” and “no.” The French oui and the Italian sì and the Spanish sí come easily enough, and all the Romance languages—even Portuguese—rely on the basic sound of no: no, non, não. But the Greek for “yes” is nai (ναι), which sounds like “no” or “nah,” a negative, while the word for “no” is όχι, which sounds like “O.K.” Why must life be so cruel? Sometimes when I’m travelling I can’t seem to get out the right word for “yes” in the country I’m in and I cycle through the whole litany: ja, oui, sì, nai, yes. Όχι is fun to say, once you get used to it. A child sometimes draws out the first syllable—óooχι, on a falling note—in protest. Greek-Americans call October 28th, the day Greece effectively entered the Second World War, Όχι Day, for the refusal by Ioannis Metaxas, the Prime Minister, to let Mussolini’s troops enter the country from Albania.
The word “mentor,” meaning counsellor or teacher, comes to us directly from Homer. Athena appears in Book II of the Odyssey as Mentor, a friend to whom Odysseus entrusted the care of his son when he left Ithaca for Troy. As I got deeper into Greek, I found another mentor in Dorothy Gregory, a professor at Barnard who agreed to tutor me in modern Greek. Dorothy gave me a lot of vocabulary, but the words that stuck were those she used conversationally, in direct address, like the time I arrived panting and she asked, “Διψάς;” (Dipsás?) I knew that a dipsomaniac was someone with an insatiable thirst, but to hear Dorothy use the verb διψάω in the second-person singular present tense and match it with my parched throat felt like a revelation.
I sometimes wonder what Dorothy Gregory thought when she saw me off on my maiden voyage to Greece. She didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go at Easter, and when I got there I did feel alienated. Easter (Pascha) is a big family holiday, and I was a total stranger, a xéni. Dorothy would have cringed if she had heard me trying to keep up my end of the Easter greeting: “Christ is risen,” a person says, and you are supposed to respond, “Truly He is risen,” but I got the ending on my adverb wrong and said, “Really? He is?”
In Greece, jumping from island to island, I made up in five weeks for a childhood confined largely to Ohio. It was while travelling in the Aegean that I decided I would study classical Greek when I got home so that I could read everything written by the Greeks who had crossed this sea before me. On returning to New York, I registered for an elementary class in ancient Greek at Columbia University and blithely submitted the bill to the magazine’s new executive editor, Tony Gibbs. To my disbelief, he turned me down, saying that ancient Greek was not relevant to my job. After a year in collating, I had moved to the copy desk, and so I started a dossier of sorts, keeping a list of words from the Greek that cropped up in The New Yorker, everything from “pi” to “ophthalmologist,” which is often misspelled with a “p” instead of a “ph.” John McPhee was then in his geology period, and from his work I learned the word “autochthonous” (autós, “self,” plus chthón, “earth”), which means something like “self-generated from the earth” and contains a tricky consonant cluster in the transliteration of chi (χ) and theta (θ). To reinforce my petition, Eleanor Gould, whose cool intelligence made her something of an oracle to the editors, wrote a letter to Gibbs stating that her own knowledge of the language might not be current enough to save us from “ignorant mistakes.” I showed the document to my friend John Bennet, an editor, who said, “You’re using a cannon to shoot a flea.” Tony Gibbs was persuaded.
Anyone who doubts the value of studying a dead language should tune in to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. It is broadcast live on ESPN, like an Olympic event, with color commentary by lexicographers and up-close-and-personal interviews with the contestants. These élite athletes of orthography routinely spell Greek-derived words, many of which I didn’t even know existed, much less what they meant or how to spell them. The 2018 competition tapped a reservoir of exotic Greek: “ephyra,” “pareidolia,” “ooporphyrin,” “lochetic,” “ecchymosis,” “ochronosis,” “gnomonics” (the art of making sundials), “propylaeum” (which means something like “foregate,” as in the ceremonial entrance to the Acropolis). “Pareidolia” is the all-too-human tendency to discern an image in some unexpected place; Webster’s Unabridged, citing the New Scientist, gives as an example “the face of the Virgin Mary on a toasted cheese sandwich.”
“Ooporphyrin” I figured had something to do with an egg (ὠόν) and the color purple (porphyry, the deep-red stone): a reference to some fabulous creature that lays purple eggs? Close. It is the characteristic pigment of brown eggshells. The champion won on the word “koinonia.” This I had a bead on, because I knew that Koine was the word for Biblical Greek. Koine is the common tongue, like lingua franca. So koinonia is the shared spirit in a community of believers. The bee pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a former champion, offered alternative pronunciations of “koinonia,” one with the “oi” of classical Greek and one with the “ee” of the modern language. A boy progressed to the next round on “Mnemosyne”—Memory, mother of the Muses, who gave us the mnemonic device and who ought to be the presiding deity of spelling bees.
When the English-speaking world needs to name something, it turns to ancient languages. Many words referring to nature come from Greek: “ocean,” “dolphin,” “hippopotamus,” “peony,” “elephant.” Some of the words that come from ancient Greek (and survive in modern Greek) are for exotic creatures. “Octopus” is from the Greek: ὀκτώ (eight) + πούς (foot) = eight-legger. Like the octopus, the medusa, or jellyfish, is one of the original sea monsters. So is the seahorse—híppos (horse) + kámpos (sea monster), which lends its name to the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped part of the brain’s temporal lobe. “Narcissus” (nárkissos) was the ancient-Greek word for the flower, native to southern Europe, that we commonly call the daffodil. The word “narcissus” is related to the Greek nárke, or torpor, numbness, a narcotic quality; it comes from the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who became entranced by his own reflection. He is the timeless personification of the flower, accounting for its existence. The hyacinth is another flower with a myth attached: Hyacinthus was a Greek youth beloved of Apollo, who killed him accidentally. From the boy’s blood sprang flowers.
George Orwell lamented the tendency to overlay classical names on common English flowers. He writes that “a snapdragon is now called an antirrhinum, a word no one can spell”—let alone pronounce—“without consulting a dictionary,” and that “forget-me-nots are coming more and more to be called myosotis.” Orwell adds, “I don’t think it a good augury for the future of the English language that ‘marigold’ should be dropped in favour of ‘calendula.’ ” I agree that something is lost when pinks are called “dianthus.” And yet there is something irresistible about Greek roots. For a long time, I went around thinking that words like “otorhinolaryngologist” (ear-nose-and-throat doctor, diminished in English to E.N.T.) and “orthodontist” were Greek, and they are, but not in the sense that ancient Greeks consulted nose specialists or wore metal braces on their teeth. Those English words were put together from Greek parts—little linguistic Frankenstein’s monsters—as the specialties came into being. Perhaps the Greek words create a comforting distance between us and our bodies. Would you rather have tennis elbow or epicondylitis? Water on the brain or hydrocephalus? A doctor might call someone a hemophiliac, whereas a mother would bemoan a bleeder. The Greek terms ennoble the ailments, even if they don’t make them go away.