I recently read a little young adult primer on Greek mythology called Heroes & Monsters of Greek Myth. It was a fun little introduction and refresher to help me before I embark on a deeper dive into the genre. At the end of the book, there was an appendix containing a list of English words and phrases that we derive from Greek and Roman mythology, and I thought it would be nice to share a few of them.
I love etymologies — how history and stories can inform our words — and how by understanding those word origins, we can understand our own culture and language more deeply. Many of the following word origins will likely be familiar to you, but a few may not, and it’s fun to remember the fascinating stories behind these common words anyway. Thus, here are 15 great words we’ve derived from ancient Mediterranean myths:
1.) Atlas, a map, was named after the Titan who bore the sky on his shoulders and was turned to stone by Perseus.
2.) Cloth is a plain little word with a very dramatic history. The Greeks believed that destiny was controlled by three terrible sisters called the Fates. Clotho spun the thread of life on her spindle; Lachesis measured the thread; and the most dangerous sister, Atropos, Lady of the Shears, snipped the thread of life when it had been measured out. Our word “cloth” comes from Clotho, the spinner.
3.) Echo is derived from the name of the nymph, Echo, who fell in love with Narcissus. She could not tell him of her love because she was under a curse which allowed her to repeat only the last word of what was said to her.
4.) Erotic, relating to love, is of course derived from Eros, Aphrodite’s son, the secret archer whose arrows were tipped with the sweet poison of love.
5.) Fortune is a very common word that is derived from Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck and vengeance, mistress of destiny. Actually, her name was a variant of the Latin word, vortumna, meaning “turner,” because she turned the giant wheel of the year, stopping it at either happiness, sorrow, life, or death. (Hence “Wheel of Fortune”.)
6.) Jovial, meaning cheerful and friendly, derives from the word Jove, one of the names for Zeus or Jupiter (the Ruler of the Gods), which has itself come to mean “born under a lucky planet and therefore happy and healthy.” The planet Jupiter is also the largest body in the solar system except the sun.
7.) Martial, meaning warlike, comes from Mars, the Roman god of war.
8.) Mercurial, meaning swift, unstable, changeable, refers to the disposition of Mercury, the Roman messenger-god.
9.) Muse, or the muses, refers to the nine goddesses (Muses) of dancing, poetry and astronomy. We use the verb muse to describe the act of pondering or meditating. The words music, musician and musical all come from this word.
10.) Narcissistic means to be obsessed by the idea of one’s own beauty. It is taken from Narcissus, the boy who fell in love with his own reflection in a stream and knelt there admiring it until he became rooted to the ground and was changed into a flower. The word narcissist is also a psychological term meaning a person who loves himself.
11.) Oracle is derived from the Greek word meaning “to pray.” It is used to refer to places where people pray: oratories; to great speakers: orators; and even great speeches: orations. A person who seems to possess great knowledge or intuition is also called an oracle, and his/her statements are described as oracular.
12.) Panic is derived from the god Pan, the goat-footed, flute-playing king of field and wood whose war cry was supposed to spread frenzy and fear among his enemies.
13.) Psyche is perhaps the most misused word in the language. In Greek it meant “soul” and was personified in myth by a beautiful princess, beloved of Eros (a.k.a. Cupid) himself, who lost her husband and her sense of herself through mistrust but regained both when she dropped her suspicions and took on the risks that love brings. In English, however, the word has come to mean the entire mental apparatus and has given birth to a host of words like psychotic, psychology, psychoanalysis, etc.
14.) Typhoon, a violent wind, comes from Typhon, a terrible monster. He was half donkey, half serpent; he had great leathery wings and flew through the air shrieking horribly, spitting flames.
15.) Volcano is derived from Vulcan, the Roman smith-god, who took a mountain as his smithy. When he heated up his forge, clouds of smoke arose from the mountain.