29 June 2017
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).
I am back in Crete for two weeks, and I am staying on the fringes of Rethymnon, the walled Venetian and university town that I have known since the 1980s.
I arrived late last night [28 June 2017] on a Ryanair flight from Dublin to Chania Airport, and it was a 40 km journey to Julia Apartments in the village of Platanes, where I am staying once again for the next few weeks.
I stayed here for three weeks last year in June and July  and spent a week here the previous September , and I am delighted to be back again in Platanes, which is about 5 or 6 km east of Rethymnon and just 300 metres walking distance from the long sandy beach that stretches in lengths east of Rethymnon.
There is a bakery on the ground floor, offering fresh bread for breakfast each morning, supermarkets two or three minutes away with fresh locally-produced fruit and vegetables each morning, and a variety of shops, bars and tavernas right on my doorstep, some with Greek and Cretan dancing several times a week.
Just two decades ago, Platanes was an unremarkable suburb of Rethymnon on the old road between Rethymnon and Iraklio. But it has grown and developed over the last 20 years, and there is a number of luxury hotels here too, along with the usual Greek rent rooms and pensions.
Behind Platanes is the pretty village of Tsesmés, with its quiet tavernas and a pretty village, which I visited a few times last year. Restaurants like Pagona’s have a unique cuisine, brought here almost a century ago by the ancestors of the families living here today as they fled the persecution of Greek-speaking people in Cesmes in Anatolia. Nearby are other pretty, traditional villages such as Adele, or Maroulas, with its Venetian tower houses and churches, and Arkadi with its historically important monastery is 17 km to the south.
I have plans next week to visit friends in Piskopiano, and to stay a night or two in Koutoulafari, two pretty villages in the mountains above Chersonnisos, east of Iraklion. Perhaps too there may be a day in Iraklion, an afternoon in Panormos, or I might visit Knossos.
Julia Apartments is a family-run complex, run by Vasilis Vogiatzis, his wife Brenda from Scotland, their daughters and his mother. There is a pool, a poolside bar and a restaurant, all set in a blossomed garden, along with a children’s playground. The apartments look out onto the garden or up to the mountains, and the studios have a kitchenette with dining area, fridge, cooking hobs and a flat-screen TV.
Last year, Vasilis was delighted with a rowing T-shirt I brought from Cambridge , and it was soon hanging proudly in the bar.
Once again, this is an interesting time to be back in Greece. The nation is still in a bleak economic and political crisis, and remains at the centre of the disturbing crisis involving refugees fleeing from Syria through Turkey to the Greek islands.
During this fortnight, I plan to visit once again a place in Rethymnon that is trying to make a difference and bring about change in the midst of these crises. In the back streets, away from the gaze of tourists, the Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno (Εθελοντικό Ιατρείο Κοινωνικής Αλληλεγγύης Ρεθύμνου) works in a narrow sidestreet where there are no tourist shops, yet only a few steps away from the seafront, the restaurants and the bars.
The doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and other volunteers at this clinic are not part of any EU-funded or government-funded programme, and they believe in a free public system. At the end of their busy working days, they provide free attention, advice and consultation for anyone who is without health insurance. That includes migrants without proper papers, but also includes many Greeks who have fallen on hard times.
They refuse to call themselves a charity, because they see health care as a human right. The clinic is open to all people without access to health care. It is a gesture of solidarity by experts and professionals who have already seen their own salaries and incomes cut in public spending cuts and in the decline in the Greek economy.
Some of the hidden work here also includes helping refugees and migrants trace missing family members.
I visited them last year and the year before too to see some of the work of the clinic. But it is hard-pressed, the workload is heavy, and the numbers needing attention are growing.
The Voluntary Welfare Clinic Rethymno (Εθελοντικό Ιατρείο Κοινωνικής Αλληλεγγύης Ρεθύμνου) can be contacted at Kastrinogiannaki 12, Rethymnon Old Town 74100, Crete (Καστρινογιαννάκη 12, Παλιά Πόλη, 74100).
Visit their website here, watch their work on this video, like their Facebook page or contact the clinic directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
During the coming weeks, I also hope to visit one or two monasteries or convents, see some archaeological sites I have not yet visited, go for walks on the beach, and to swim in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Despite the intermittent rain in Askeaton this week, the temperatures here this week are in the low and mid-30s during the day, and there was a heatwave last week.
There are good Wi-Fi connections here, so join me each day during my time in Crete over the next two weeks.