Chapter 22: Greek Verbs and their Derivatives

§137. Interesting Words

The word euphemism appeared in Chapter 1 (§5) of this course. Its form is excellent Greek: εὐ-φημ-ισμος, “an act of speaking well.” (There was an ancient Greek adjective εὐφημος, which meant using only words of good omen.) Our society invents euphemisms in order to soften unpleasant or distasteful facts—or even to hide them completely. If it is too painful to say that a beloved parent has “died,” then he or she has “passed away.” Bodily functions are obvious candidates for euphemistic treatment; even in a forest wilderness, many people will still speak of “going to the bathroom.” Bureaucrats couldn’t survive without these tools of camouflage. When the B.C. Government announced a new policy of park management several years ago, citizens were astounded to discover that “recreation area” meant a park zone where mining would be encouraged. There are vigilant word-lovers who devote all their energies to collecting and documenting new gems of this kind. An all-time classic emerged from the Gulf War of 1991—“collateral damage” for “civilian deaths.” As writers from Thucydides to Orwell have observed, plain truth is the first casualty of war.

Far less familiar is the opposite term, dysphemism. Just as it may be genteel to say that someone has “passed away,” so too can we brutalize the event by saying that the person “croaked” or “kicked the bucket.” The sex act is given dignity by the euphemism “make love,” but it is hardly ennobled by the dysphemism “screw.” Street language has many dysphemisms; in Cockney rhyming slang, a man’s wife is her husband’s “trouble and strife.”

You have probably noticed that the Greek root pha– (φα-) is common to two different verbs, meaning “speak” and “show.” In English, aphasia (ἀ-φασ-ια) is inability to speak, whereas a phase (φασ-ις) of the moon is one of its appearances. One might suppose that emphasis (ἐμ-φασ-ις) was related to speaking, but it was originally a rhetorical means of showing or indicating. Fortunately, the other roots of these two verbs can’t be confused; for instance, that wonderful word diaphanous has (dare we say it?) a “transparent” etymology. In the annals of British Columbia politics, the saga of Fantasy Gardens was a fantastic phenomenon.[1] Check out the words phantasmagoria and sycophant; the last has the weird and obscure etymological meaning of “fig-shower.”

A complex of fascinating words has evolved from Greek βαλλειν, “to throw,” which has the roots ball-, bol-, and blē-. A problem (προ-βλη-μα) is something “thrown forward” (a Latin project, perhaps?). Hyperbole and hyperbola are rhetorical and mathematical doublets that suggest “a throwing above.” Two other doublets are parabola and parable—both derived from παραβολη, “a throwing beside,” “a comparison.” By a strange semantic development, the Late Latin adaptation parabola acquired the meaning “word,” and its denominative verb parabolare, the meaning “talk.” Here is the source of French parole and parler, and of English parlor, parley, and parliament. The verb διαβαλλειν (literally, “throw across”) suggested hurling slander or abuse; and the noun “Slanderer”—διαβολος (L diabolus)—became eventually the Devil (cf. diabolical). Those who are cynical about the parliamentary process may be pleased to learn that Old Nick is a linguistic cousin of every M.P in Ottawa.


  1. Our word phenomenon is derived from φαινομενον (“something appearing”), a present participle of φαινειν. Although the αι diphthong became Latinized and then reduced to e, the Greek neuter ending survived. Thus the correct plural form is, of course, phenomena.

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§137. Interesting Words by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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