13 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (24) Telephone

An old ‘cardpohone’ survives on a street corner in Platanias in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I remember on holidays in Greece in the 1980s and 1990s queuing up to use the one public telephone in a village or on a street corner.

Long before that, I remember queueing in the 1960s to use one of only two pay-phones in dark cubicles on a corridor in my school.

Many old telephone booths throughout Ireland and England have been converted into other uses, included village book exchanges – there is an inspiring one in Wall, near Lichfield –defibrillator stations, or for commercial uses, such as one advertising an estate agent in Cambridge.

I am surprised that an old ‘cardphone’ still survives here in Platanias, on a street corner beside the taxi rank, the local periptero or street kiosk, and the local bakery.

I cannot remember how to use a ‘cardphone,’ although I am sure I could buy a ‘phonecard’ in the kiosk.

But I can remember that the word telephone has come into English vocabulary as an invented word derived from the Greek τῆλε (tēle, ‘far’) and φωνή (phōnē, ‘voice’), giving a name that means ‘distant voice’ to a relatively new invention.

Think: telegram, telegraph, telepathy …

Think: saxophone, megaphone, microphone … or even symphony.

The first part of the word, despite what some people say, does not come from the Greek word τέλος (telos), meaning an end, purpose, or goal – perhaps even the supreme end of human endeavour, as in teleology.

The word telephone does not suggest ‘talking to someone at the end’ of the line, as I have heard some people suggest. Indeed, the first E in telos and tele- are different vowel sounds in Greek: E (epsilon, a short vowel) and Η (eta, a long vowel).

And not knowing the difference probably explains the irritating decision to change the official Irish spelling of the word from telefón to teileafón.

The Irish Times reported last week that the change has been made to 20 new phone boxes that have popped up across Dublin in recent weeks. A spokeswoman for Eir said the change had been made in consultation with Foras na Gaeilge, the body responsible for promoting the Irish language.

She told Conor Pope of The Irish Times: ‘Telefón would have been the phonetic Gaelicisation of the English word telephone when telephones were first introduced in Ireland.’

But the word telephone is not English in its origins, and the new word sounds like ‘pigeon Irish’ that shows complete ignorance of the meaning of the Greek words from which it is derived.

I shudder to think of the phonetic challenges of trying to explain the origins of this invented word to people with no classical foundations.

An old telephone kiosk is now used for a defibrillator in Ballybunion, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday: Laconic

Tomorrow: Asthma

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