Ask Mint | It’s all Greek, but quite familiar

Ask Mint | It’s all Greek, but quite familiar
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First Published: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 16 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 16 AM IST
When Tata Motor Ltd decided to name their people’s car the Nano, they were drawing on the rich resources of Greek vocabulary. “Nano-” is a prefix that means one-billionth. Its original meaning in Greek was “dwarf”. Nanotechnology, also known as molecular manufacturing, deals with the design and manufacture of extremely small circuits and mechanical devices. The same prefix is found in nanosecond and nanometre. The average human hair is about 100,000 nanometres thick.
Besides nano, we have adopted several other numerical prefixes from Greek. “Pico-” is one-thousandth of a nano. On the other side of zero, we have large positive numbers in exponential powers of 1,000, which include thousand, million, billion and trillion. But, these words contain Latin “mille”, modified by the prefixes “bi-” and “tri-”. Ancient Greek did not have names for such large numbers.
“Mega-” is an interesting prefix. It has moved into common currency, to refer to a very large size. A “megabuck” is one million dollars, and “megadeath” was coined for one million people dead, a measure of the effectiveness of nuclear weapons. Other common words of this set are “megacity”, “megadeal”, “megaflop”, “megahit”, and “megamall”. Celebrities in the entertainment industry are called “megastars”, or “superstars”. “Mega” and “super” are really not number words.
When it comes to large numbers in the context of computers, the pattern may be slightly different. It is generally believed that “kilo” stands for a thousand and “mega” represents a million. This is true when we use “mega” in words such as “megacycle”, “megaton”, or “megahertz”. In computing, however, we start with kilobytes, and then move on to megabytes (MB). The difference is that here we use the binary system and not the decimal system. A kilo then refers not to 1,000, but 1,024, which is the 10th power of 2. A megabyte then becomes 2 to the 20th power or 1,048,576 bytes.
When computers gobbled up memory as fast as you upgraded them, even MB became inadequate as a measure, and so the next higher figure of gigabyte was introduced. “Giga” in Greek means giant, as in the word gigantic. It represents the counterpart of nano on the positive side.
From numbers to letters. English uses Greek letters in two ways: one in the form of words and idioms, and the other in the form of units or quantities. The first idiom that comes to mind is “alpha” and “omega”. In Revelation, the Lord God says, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last.” To me the most interesting Greek letter used as a word in English is “iota”. This letter has become totally and fully naturalized as a normal English word, which can be used by lay persons in daily conversation. For example: “There is not an iota of truth in what he is saying.”
The second use of Greek letters is to represent units or quantities in science. In high-school physics, we have come across the use of “pi” as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius. “Theta” is used for the measure of an angle, and “sigma” is used for summation.
A very interesting aspect of the presence of a Greek element in English is the naming of companies and enterprises after Greek gods and goddesses. Apollo was the name of the mission to the moon. India has companies that bear the name of Titan, Atlas and Triton. Amazon is a well-known company name, reportedly taken from the name of the most voluminous river in South America.
The word has an interesting background. Amazons were warrior women in Scythia, and the name “A-mazon” means “without breast”. The story goes that these women amputated their right breast to be able to draw the bow more easily. When you speak of Fortune 500 companies, you are taking the name of the Greek god of good luck, Fortuna. The multinational brand Nike is named after the Greek goddess who personified triumph.
Greek together with Latin has been an important resource for the creation of an International Scientific Vocabulary. Television has a Greek prefix followed by a Latin root. Take a modern word such as “nephrectomy”: the surgical removal of a kidney. The suffix “-ectomy” is widely used in medical English to mean removal of an organ. “Hystera” is the Greek name for the womb, and so we have hysterectomy, the removal of the womb. Can a linguist argue, then, that men can never be hysterical since they don’t have wombs?
Two Greek words were in the news recently: “anorexia”, “without appetite”, and “bulimia”, “hunger of an ox”. The words came to stand for extreme measures adopted by women to remain stick-thin. Advocates of “ana” and “mia” encouraged women to indulge in bouts of excessive eating followed by starving and self-induced purging or vomiting.
While it is good to know the origin of our words from ancient Greek, there can be embarrassments, too. People who go to fitness centres may not be happy to know that a gymnasium means a place where people do fitness exercises naked. “Gymnos” means naked, and when Alexander’s soldiers met the Digambars or sky-clad philosophers of India, they named them “gymnosophists”, “naked philosophers”.
The word “seminar” is linked to Greek “semen”, which originally meant “seeds”, but today stands for human fertility fluid.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to
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First Published: Mon, Apr 28 2008. 12 16 AM IST