29 June 2017

Even the Greeks have a
word for it: (1) neologism

Struggling to find the Greek word for cherries in the supermarket this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I grew up often hearing the phrase ‘the Greeks have a word for it.’

But I have sometimes wondered whether the Greeks invented this phrase, or English-speakers invented it to cover the inadequacies of our language, and the way it sometimes leaves us without simple words to express complex or passionate thoughts.

This morning, as I went shopping in my local supermarket in Platanes for fruit for breakfast, I struggled to find the words for every-day fruits, although there was no need to – every Greek in resorts and shops like this speak fluent English, and speak it perfectly.

So, where did the phrase come from?

And what words do the Greeks have that leave us English-speakers feeling verbally inadequate?

Each time I return to Greece, I feel I have lost more of my fluency, but still I persist in trying to recover my ability to use this beautiful and expressive language that has shaped our ideas and the ways we express concepts, emotions, values and beliefs.

Last night, having arrived in Rethymnon almost at midnight, and I struggled in English and weak Greek in the one restaurant nearby that was still open to order a late-night meal. I need to improve both my vocabulary and my confidence in using it.

But it was not the Greeks who invented the phrase ‘the Greeks have a word for it.’

Instead, as far as I can discover, the phrase may have been used first in 1930 when a play called The Greeks Had a Word for It opened on Broadway on 25 September. The play was written by Zoe Akins (1886-1958), who is generally credited with coining the phrase. Perhaps she is better known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Old Maid in 1935.

The Greeks Had a Word for It is a comedy about three young women who might have been called ‘gold diggers’ and their hunt for wealthy men as suitable prospective husbands. But the ‘It’ referred to something that could not be mentioned on stage in those days of censorship.

When Twentieth Century Fox made a film version of the play in 1932, starring Joan Blondell, Madge Evans and Ina Claire, the original title of the film was The Greeks Had a Word for Them. The producers worried that the word ‘It’ would be deemed too blatantly salacious by the censors and so changed ‘It’ to ‘Them.’

But even the revised title caused worried, and the film was finally released with the title Three Broadway Girls.

In 1953, Zoe Akins’s play The Greeks Had a Word for It was used as the basis for a film starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, How to Marry a Millionaire, and it helped to launch Marilyn Monroe’s career as a top movie star.

Over a decade later, Barry Unsworth, a Booker-prize winning author, had his second novel, The Greeks Have a Word For It published by Hutchinson in 1967. It is set in Athens in the aftermath of the Greek Civil War and draws on the writer’s own experiences teaching English as a foreign language in Greece.

In the book, two men arrive in Athens on the same boat. Kennedy is an Englishman intends to make a living teaching English and devises a scam to make money fast; Mitsos is returning to Greece after many years away but finds it impossible to escape the memories of the brutal deaths of his parents at the hands of fellow Greeks during the civil war and seeks an early an opportunity for revenge. The two men meet briefly as they disembark the boat but their stories then diverge only to come together at the end of the book with fatal results.

Today, the phrase provides journalists with easy, cheap and quick headlines about Greek politics or scandals involving Greek-born people. For example, when Vicky Pryce was found guilty of perverting the course of justice in 2013, the Daily Telegraph inevitably placed the headline over a comment piece by Allison Pearson: ‘Vicky Pryce trial: The Greeks have a word for it...’

Vicky Price was born Vasiliki Courmouzis. The columnist must have thought herself very well-educated as she mused: ‘The English, public school-educated [Chris] Huhne probably realised that he would be no match in open court for his Greek wife, whom blind fury had turned from respected senior civil servant and Companion of the Order of the Bath into Clapham’s answer to Clytemnestra.’

But I am losing the plot. It is a myth(μῦθος, mythos) to think that the in every case the Greeks have a word for it.

Greek does not have a word for it, well not everything, and modern Greek has fallen behind on new words, especially needed for technology and new trends. As a consequence, the Greek Academy spends time at its meetings each month deliberating on, inventing and approving new Greek words so as to convey new foreign meanings into Greek.

Even the Greeks have a need for a neologism – they call it νεολογισμός (neologismós).

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