Monday, November 10, 2008

Fun with etymology!

I've mentioned that I'm a bit of a geek. I'm fascinated by things that most non-geeks don't even think about. I'm convinced I have an extra lobe in my brain just for trivia. Not just the usual geek stuff like Star Trek episodes, either.

Like language stuff. I'm familiar enough with the Greek alphabet that I can "sound out" most signs, although I have no idea what I'm reading most of the time. And sometimes I'll see something about a word that will cause me to have a simultaneous "aha!" and "d'oh!" moment. I've had quite a few of those moments recently.

I learned a word a few years ago, iatrogenic. It means, in effect, "caused by doctors." The UK "Superbug" MRSA is an iatrogenic illness, in that you usually only get it while in the hospital for something else. OK, fine. I took that word at its face value, and never thought about its origins. Then I came here, and I saw a sign for a doctor's office. And I noticed that it said ιατρός (iatros)... Oh, yeah, I thought that must be where that comes from, duh. And then I realized exactly what kind of doctor it was. It was a παῖδιατρός (paediatros)... Pediatrician. Literally. D'oh. (I told you this was dumb...)

(edit: ok, having read further on that MRSA link above, apparently it isn't really "iatrogenic," as that implies the doctor caused the disease. It's actually "nosocomial," meaning "happens in the hospital", and which is also from the Greek nosocomion (νοσοκομείον) which means "hospital." But my linguistic epiphany isn't any less valid...)

I was walking down the street here and I saw a church supply store. They're all over, dozens of them, full of gilt icons and censers and metal-bound bibles and all sorts of stuff for your better-appointed house of worship. And I remembered that, in English, we call those "ecclesiastical supplies." (Well, sometimes we do.) Then I rounded the corner and came across a Catholic church. Or, in Greek, ἐκκλησίᾱ (ecclesia). Oh, right, of course... Then the "d'oh" moment... what's Spanish for church? "Iglesia." And French? "Eglise." Staring me in the face, it was.

But one of the strangest things is the Greek language itself. I'm not following their rules for using their own alphabet. In particular, they make some spelling choices that just make no sense to me.

For instance, most of us are familiar with a few Greek letters: alpha (Α α), beta (Β β), gamma (Γ γ), delta (Δ δ), and pi (Π π), and if we're familiar with fraternities, we'll know a few more, like kappa (Κ κ), tau (Τ τ), mu (Μ μ) and nu (Ν ν). Now, it seems to me that β is a perfectly servicable "B" sound, γ makes a fine "G" and δ does a good job for "D". So why do the Greeks sometimes use β for "B," but other times use μπ (equivalent to "mp")? When is δ good for a "D" and when is it just not up to the task and they have to use ντ (like using "nt")? And when do you have to use γκ ("gk") instead of just plain γ?

I'm sure Susie knows, since she studied Greek in school, but it sure seems like a lot of extra work to me...

1 comment:

SusieH said...

Actually...I don't know! It's just one of those wacky language things, as far as I know. Anyone else? Anyone? Anyone?