About a year ago my father asked me to join him in the weekly newsletters that he wrote to his former athletes and students. Knowing I was teaching myself ancient Greek, he asked me to produce a word for him to accompany each communication. We rarely missed a week, as he was committed to the self-inflicted Sunday deadline we imposed on ourselves, and we made it to 47 newsletters before he passed away last October.

I didn't think much of it in the beginning, but over time I began to enjoy meeting the deadlines with him. To honor this collaboration, I have decided to republish my "Greek for the Week" series over the next 47 weeks (or so). It's a small offering, but perhaps it will grow on you over time.

1

γίγνομαι /gi.gno.mai/ verb, 1st person, singular number, active voice, indicative mood, present tense

It means

  • of people, "to come into being", "to become" or "to be born"
  • of things, "to be produced" or
  • of events, "to take place".

In English we memorize a verb by its infinitive because, presumably, it holds the same form for all conjugations. In ancient Greek, the infinitive is conjugated and so the norm is to memorize the first person, singular verb form. For example, the active, indicative, present form of the infinitive of γίγνομαι, "I become" or "I am becoming", is γιγνώσκειν "'to become' in the present time we are speaking".

To complicate things further, γίγνομαι is named a "deponent" verb, which means it possesses a middle / passive voice, but no active voice (middle and passive voices typically conjugate with the same endings), and so its middle voice "I am becoming for myself" is translated in the active voice "I am becoming" and so on (so I fibbed a bit above calling γίγνομαι "I become" active).

Deponent or not, I get hung up on the passive voice all the time as one can usually only distinguish between middle and passive based on the context of the sentence.

For example, let's consider an easier example with the word ἐσθίω /es'thi.o/ "I eat". In ancient Greek the active voice would be ἐσθίω "I eat" or "I am eating" while the middle voice would be ἐσθίομαι "I eat for myself" as is the passive voice ἐσθίομαι "I am being eaten"! Argh!

Note the stem ἐσθί- in the active voice takes the omega +ω while the middle / passive takes +ομαι, like we saw in γίγνομαι (γίγν- + ομαι).

2

ἡ ὄψις - (opsis), noun, feminine; meaning vision, sight

ἡ γνώμη - (gnome), noun, feminine; meaning mind, opinion, judgement, purpose, intelligence

I encountered these two words used together while translating a passage by Thucydides. Trapped in enemy territory, the invading Athenians had just left on foot into hostile countryside following their complete navel defeat by the hands of the Syracusans (Syracuse was a mighty Corinthian Greek colony located in south-eastern Sicily).

ὄψις and γνώμη were the words used to describe the great pain the soldiers were feeling both visually (their dead comrades) and in their minds (their dread of what is likely to become of them).

As it turns out, most of these Athenian soldiers were eventually killed defending themselves or captured and enslaved.

3

ἡ ἀλήθεια (alḗtheia), noun, feminine - meaning "truth"

In addition to its gravity, I really like this word because it's pleasing in form and sound.

4

ἡ μοῖρα - (môi.ra) noun, feminine - meaning fate, lot, destiny; death

Quoting from one of my textbooks

“μοῖρα is part:

  • a portion of land,
  • a division of people,
  • a political party,
  • a geographical or astronomical degree, and then
  • the lot or share which falls to each person, especially in the distribution of booty.

The word means the lot or rightful portion of an individual, but from this it came to mean the doom of death, mankind’s inescapable lot ...”

5

Χίμαιρα (kʰí.mai̯.ra) – Proper Noun

The Chimera was a monstrous fire-breathing hybrid creature of Lycia in Asia Minor, composed of the parts of more than one animal. It is usually depicted as a lion, with the head of a goat protruding from its back, and a tail that might end with a snake's head.

You can see the presumed origins of the Chimera fable in Lycia on a hill that still produces a constant flame, burning day and night, and that once was bright enough to be used for ancient nighttime naval navigation (it’s located west of Antalya in southern Turkey).

The flames are caused by leaking methane that spontaneously combusts when it contacts the air. Now the parks caretakers use it to boil their tea water.

6

This week is about friendship.

φιλέω (phi-le-o) verb - I love, kiss; am used to; am a friend of, like (remember we learn ancient Greek verbs in the 1st person singular)

ἡ φιλία (phi-li-a), noun, feminine - friendship

ὁ φίλος (phi-los), noun, masculine - friend

φίλος η ον (phi-los), adjective (masc., fem., neu.) - dear, one's own

Here's to φίλοι friends and φιλία friendship!

7

As the elections approach, we present:

῎Αρχω (archo), verb - meaning “be first”

-- whether of time: begin, make a beginning or
-- of a place or station: govern, rule.

It’s participle (verbal adjective) is ἄρχων (archon), and when used in the masculine as a noun means “ruler”, “commander”, or “archon”. Archon is the title of the top administrative magistrates in ancient Athens and many other settlements.

Extra Credit: Punctuation Marks:

You may have noticed the punctuation marks on the words presented. One is an accent mark: acute ´ or grave ` or circumflex ῀. In ancient Greek it represents where to place a change in pitch, either up (acute), down (grave), or up-down (circumflex). These days a simple change in stress is considered sufficient.

The other punctuation mark is a breathing mark. ῾ is called a rough breathing mark which indicates to add an h-sound before the vowel that follows, or in the case of a ρ (rho), a rh-sound. ᾽ denotes a smooth breathing; so, do nothing extra.

So ῎Αρχω indicates a smooth breathing with the accent of the first vowel.

All words that begin with a vowel must have a breathing mark, as do words that begin with ρ (rho). A further complication occurs with diphthongs, which are two consecutive vowels said together, and for which the breathing mark is placed on the second vowel (I digress).

An example I like is the word ῥήτωρ, which, without the rough breathing, would be something like "r-A-tor", but with the rough breathing is "rho-A-tor" or orator! Often Greek can just jump through to us like this!