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5 Words with Surprising Original Definitions

if knowing your Greek does nothing else, these are some of the coolest icebreakers to win the attention of any person in the room — so here we go


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Angela Yurchenko

4 months ago | 6 min read
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Have you ever wondered why our ancestors took their Greek and Latin seriously? Well, in addition to the intriguing prospect of speaking the language of Plato and Aristotle and Virgil, there’s a curious study called etymology, or the science of word roots (aka the “birth of words”).

Etymology is fascinating since word roots aren’t just linguistics. They’re psychological clues guiding us along the paths of how our minds changed over centuries and the subconscious stigmas language carries through our psyche. Word roots can lead to deep insights regarding concepts we considered second nature.

if knowing your Greek does nothing else, these are some of the coolest icebreakers to win the attention of any person in the room — so here we go.

1. Passion

‘Passion’ is everyone’s favorite go-to advice. The main ingredient we’re instructed to garner and any dish will be seasoned to taste. Talk about entrepreneurship, home, hobbies, hubbies... It’s all supposed to come together through passion — unless you overdo it and passion dons the tragic image of Anna Karenina.

What you’re really saying:

The original meaning of the word ‘passion’ is much closer to a human being in the throes of agony than the voluptuous enthusiasm we’ve come to stamp enthusiastic entrepreneurs with.

Derived from the Latin passio meaning “suffering”, passion was reserved for the greatest suffering of the human mind and heart — such as, in Christianity, the Biblical Passion of Christ. Cut even further, we get to the root of the word, pati, meaning “to endure”.

The next time someone tells you all it takes to become the next Zuckerberg is ‘passion’ aka ‘enthusiasm’, remind them of the thorny path one has to cross on the way to their dreams and brace yourself with some ‘pati’— endurance.

Understanding that passion is endurance at its root is more than a linguistic catch; it’s a formula that prepares you to be resilient, not disheartened when challenges come. On a different note, whenever you thirst after more passion in a relationship, be careful what you wish for!

2. Democracy

There’s nothing we, as a society, have fought for longer and stronger than democracy. The backbone of any civilized modern society, democracy has become the slogan behind things like ‘freedom’, ‘enlightenment’, and ‘prosperity’.

It’s really not possible to think of an antonym to democracy without slipping off into a sequence of awful subconscious images (fascism, gulags, and such). But has democracy always been the prized political system it now is?

What you’re really saying:

Democracy translates from Greek as demos, meaning “commoner” and kratos, meaning “strength”. Together, it is the “rule of the common people”. However, for ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle, Democracy was not the ideal state that we’ve come to strive for. In fact, it was something to be avoided.

For Aristotle, the true rule in the common interest was called “polity” — or popular government which was to serve the common good. “Democracy” for Aristotle was, in fact, the corrupt or perverted form of polity.

For just as monarchy when perverted becomes tyranny, and aristocracy becomes oligarchy, so does polity-gone-wrong turn into democracy or “anarchic mob rule”, Aristotle argued.

Perhaps the problem with our society is that we haven’t paid attention to Aristotle and coined the wrong definition for democracy all along? Perhaps what we really needed to fight for was polity? Or maybe you’re thinking right — we’ve got enough on our hands without a linguistic battle.

3. Cynic

Have you ever been called “skeptical” or of a skeptical frame of mind? If so, you probably didn’t take it too badly. Perhaps it drew from you an I-know-life-and-it-ain’t-rosey kind of a wink.

Or you even took it as a compliment of your questioning attitude towards life. In any case, you would not feel terribly hurt. Being called off as “cynic”, on the other hand, is no joking matter. Cynics are people without feelings, people with nothing sacred in their life, people we don’t want to come into contact with.

What you’re really saying:

Cynicism was a Greek school of philosophical thought initiated and practiced by Diogenes of Synope. Diogenes disdained wealth, riches, and other standard pleasures. He lived in a tub for dogs, wore coarse clothes, and lived on alms.

Preaching disdain for earthly goods, he was a bit like the early Christian monk living in his cell-cave who abandoned all riches for the sake of his quest for spiritual freedom. Or even like St. Francis.

Diogenes’ disdain for wealth in combination with a sharp tongue didn’t go down very well amongst the luxurious Greek aristocracy. They labeled him cynic, which translates to “dog-like”. Sure, Diogenes was sharp-tongued.

And sure, there’s that famous anecdote when Alexander the Great came to visit Diogenes and asked, “What can I do for you?” receiving the brief “You can move out of my light” in lieu of thanks. But let’s face it: if he were a pampered aristocrat, he’d just be called off as extravagant.

There’s nothing harmful about dogs, right? (Dog owners would agree.)So the next time someone calls you off as cynical, remind them: they’re just talking about dogs. And if you feel like it, tell them about Diogenes of Synope.

4. Theory

To the modern ear, the difference between “theory and practice” is the same as being a “good on paper” couple and being a diamond-anniversary-happily-married kind of couple.

When we say we know the theory of something, we talk about a hypothesis or studied knowledge that hasn’t been proven, something a few degrees of separation from real life.

Today, we also tend to see theory as the kind of boring, mechanical study of something, an antonym to “practice” which is the true essence of the subject matter.

What you’re really saying:

Theory comes from the Greek theoria and shares an important Greek root: theion, meaning “divine”. Added to the suffix -orao, meaning “I see”, it takes on the meaning of “seeing the divine”. Since “seeing” the divine in both religion and philosophy is accomplished through contemplation, so did theoria originally mean, “contemplation of the divine”, or the highest order of things.

To understand how highly the ancients valued contemplation, it’s worth remembering the 5th century B.C. Greek philosopher Xenophanes who held a belief that God has nothing in common with humans apart from the power of thought. 

Thus a human’s ability to contemplate was seen as the faculty of the highest order, the only faculty capable of uniting one to the divine.

It comes as little surprise then, that “theory” was a lofty capacity held in great reverence, while practice, coming from the Greek praktikos, meant “fit for business, fit for action, business-like.”

The next time you think of studying something in theory vs.practice, take some time to dig a bit deeper and think of the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ you’re studying and how this subject can deepen or change your knowledge of life.

This way, the theory will never be boring but may bring you closer to the contemplation of the meaning of life.

5. Freelancer

If you’ve made it thus far without striking a tune with any of the above words, I bet you can relate to this one. Freelancing is something most of us have done, at one or another point of life, especially in today’s unstable economy.

Have you ever wondered what the word means? To my own shame, up to recent times, I thought of ‘freelancing’ as nothing but a very modern word to describe a very modern lifestyle. How mistaken I was!

What you’re really saying:

The word “freelance” came into English way back in the 1800s. Now, for a word, that’s not much, but for a word we’ve come to associate with sitting at your laptop while working from home, that’s quite a surprise.

A freelancer is in fact a “free-lancer” or a medieval mercenary knight (the one with a lance) with “free” allegiance. In other words, a knight who fought on the side of whichever nation or person paid them.

The first mention of this word comes from Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, so it was actually Scott that coined the term Free Lance (though the practice of mercenary knights was widespread) with one of the characters in his novel referring to his paid knights as “Free Lances”.

In the 19th century, Scott’s term took root. It soon became used for politicians without affiliation, and eventually, for workers without company affiliation.

Unfortunately, a part of modern society still thinks that if you’re “not affiliated” with any company, you don’t have the “right” kind of allegiance as a worker.

Throw that reckoning to the wind. Instead, fight freely for what you believe in, and in another 50 years, together we may transform “freelancer” and a whole bunch of other words to mean “spirited fighter for one’s dreams”.

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Angela Yurchenko

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Bilingual pianist & business journalist. Writing about the Human Experience.


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