Word Nerd: 6 magical English words from Greco-Roman mythology

17 Jan

Since ancient times, mythology has helped form a bridge between abstraction and personification, between imagination and belief, and mind and speech. Myth is a feature of every culture. In fundamental ways, it helps explain the world to us.

The means of that explanation is language. Naturally, myths are embedded in our vocabulary. Often, we use words from myths without being aware of their fascinating origin. The source stories, however, can help us understand and use the words even better.

In this blog, we share 6 words which have their roots in Greco-Roman myths.

1. Cereal

Not just breakfast for most of the western hemisphere, cereal is also any grain used for food – wheat, rice, maize. In this context it makes sense that the root of the word is Ceres – name of the Roman goddess of agriculture, fertility, and motherliness. In the Roman times, Ceres was synonymous with grain and bread. The association has lingered to this day.

2. Echo
The word means repeating or reflecting sounds, ideas and phrases.

In Ovid’s ‘Metapmorphoses’, Echo is a nymph from the mountains, who has a wonderful voice and gift for storytelling. She distracts Juno while Jupiter escapes for an affair. An angry Juno curses her that henceforth she will only be able to finish or repeat sentences.

Later, when Narcissus rejects her love, Echo prays mentally to Venus to exist as a voice without a form. This explains the aural effect named after her.

3. Narcissistic
Self-love taken to an unhealthy extreme is narcissism.

The origin of the term is in the myth of Narcissus – a proud hunter who broke several hearts (including Echo’s above). Nemesis, the Roman goddess who punishes pride, drew him to a pool where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. He gazed at his image for so long that he wasted away and died.

4. Hypnosis
OED defines hypnosis as “the induction of a state of consciousness in which a person apparently loses the power of voluntary action and is highly responsive to suggestion or direction.”

The word comes from Hypnos – the Greek personification of sleep. Hypnos is the son of Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness). He is said to live in a dark cave in hell, where no light or sound can enter. Poppies and other hypnotic plants grow in his garden. His children are gods of the dream. Because he is god of sleep, he owns half of a human’s life.

5. Morphine
A drug derived from opium, which is used to relieve pain, morphine is derived from the name of the Roman god of dreams – Morpheus. He is a son of Hypnos, one of thousands.

6. Tantalise

The verb means to excite or tease someone with the promise of something unattainable.
And the best example of this predicament is Tantalus. He is the first of that name in Greek myth. Tantalus was a son of Zeus who wined and dined with the gods. He stole from them and gave to his people. Also, he sacrificed his own son to the gods who hated human sacrifice. The gods brought the dead son back to life and threw Tantalus down to the depth of hell.

In hell, Tantalus stands in a pool of water under a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he stoops to drink water, it recedes. And when he reaches for fruit, the branches are beyond his grasp. A stone hangs above his head threatening to fall at any moment.

There are many, many more words inspired by myth – fury, chaos, chronology, grace, and so on.

Would you like to add to our list? Comment below or write to us.

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