Words originating from Greek Mythological Characters

You can gain interesting insights and memorize words better if you check the etymology. Many words in English have fascinating, and sometimes even weird origins (check the etymology of Avocado, for instance). An interest in etymology is self-perpetuating; all you have to do is give it a kick start. This post deals with a few words originating from Greek mythological characters. While listing all of them is certainly a herculean task and something beyond my ken, this is a humble attempt to share a few words off the top of my head.

  • From The Creation Myth: According to the Greeks, the entire universe was initially empty i.e it was void of any physical existence. They called it χάος (Chaos). Gaia (the mother Earth) was the first to come into existence from this void. The prefix “Geo” has its origins at this point and comes from the Greek word γη or γαια (Gaia) meaning “earth.” But Gaia wasn’t the only entity to come out ex nihilo — she was followed by Tartarus (underworld), Eros, Erebus and Nyx (night). Eros, the Greek god of love, according to some sources, is responsible for the existence of the word Erotic [from Erotikos]. Nyx, on the other hand, had children named Hypnos (sleep) and Nemesis (retribution) along with 4 others Nyx’s children are the etymological ancestors of the words Hypnosis and Nemesis respectively. Among the other primordial deities were Aether (responsible for the origin of Ether — meaning, the upper regions of space) and Chronos (responsible for the prefix Chron- meaning Time).
  • Tantalizingly true: There was once a Greek demigod named Tantalus — the son of Zeus and the nymph Plouto. He was invited to Mount Olympus by Zeus, the ruler of gods. Tantalus, drawn away by the abundant supply of Ambrosia (Nectar), stole it to give it to his friends back on Earth. In addition to that, he invited gods to his place and served them the flesh of his own son, Pelops. He also revealed some secrets of the gods to his subjects. If Tantalus were living in the present-day world, he would be charged for infanticide, cannibalism and human sacrifice and be locked up till death. But the punishments given back then were far more severe. After facing the wrath of Zeus, he was sent to Tartarus for eternity where all the scrumptious delicacies hang within his mouth’s reach but move away as soon as he attempts to eat one. The worst part is, he would never die — he’s locked up for a futile eternal quest. Hence, we have the word Tantalizing — the act of tormenting or teasing (someone) with the sight or promise of something unobtainable. From the perspective of an etymologist, the moral of the story is…placing yourself at the extreme ends of the good-bad dichotomy makes your name eponymous with a (sometimes) frequently used word. (If you are really unlucky, you’ll find your name denoting something you despise — see Orwellian).
  • Hermaphrodite: Hermes is the messenger to gods (Indians can think of him as the mythological equivalent to Narada). Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love. They had a son named Hermaphroditus. A lascivious nymph named Salmacis falls in love with him and tries to mate with him. (she is “the only nymph rapist” according to Wikipedia) She apparently called out the gods and requested them to unite her with Hermaphroditus for eternity. Surprisingly, the gods give their consent, thereby binding them into a single creature. The word Hermaphrodite hence refers to a person or an animal having both male and female sex organs or other sexual characteristics, either abnormally or naturally.
  • I am handsome and successful. I’m a gift to humanity, I’m a polymath and I’m obviously, a notch above all of you in terms of whatever the attribute you talk about” that’s what I would have written if I were a narcissist. A narcissist is a person who loves him(/her)self excessively and also takes pride in his actions. The word comes from the Greek Narkissos — a hunter renowned for his beauty. Unfortunately, he was also extremely proud and hated those who loved him. Nemesis, after watching his pride and scorn, came up with a machination to bring him to a pool and made him see his own reflection in the water. Narkissos, instantly smitten by his own reflection, kept staring at it till he died (he was then transformed to a flower that bears his name). See Echo.
  • Panic! – The word ‘Panic‘ is based on the deeds of the Greek demigod Pan. Legend has it that one of Pan’s favorite diversions was to torment ancient Greek travelers traversing the byways of a once-forested land. Pan would wait, concealed in the bushes, awaiting his unwitting victims. Whenever a traveler passed by his hiding place, Pan would gently rustle the bushes, engendering a sense of apprehension in the person walking by. Thus did the term panic originate.

Then, there are the words “Herculean” and “Sisyphean” — resembling the labors of Hercules and Sisyphus respectively.

  • At one point, Hercules, the son of Zeus, was given a series of twelve horribly difficult tasks (by Eurystheus) that he had to perform in order to atone for killing his own sons. Hence, the word Herculean refers to tasks requiring immense strength and tremendous effort.
  • Sisyphus was a king of Corinth who was punished by Hades for his misdeeds. His punishment was to roll a heavy stone up a hill. But every time he approached the top, the stone escaped his grasp and rolled back to the bottom. The word Sisyphean hence, refers to tasks that are endlessly laborious or futile.
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