Chinese is one of only a handful of foreign languages that bases its name for Greece on Ελλάς (Hellas), the term the Greeks currently use in self-description. Until recently, however, Greeks referred to themselves just as frequently as ‘Romans’ in a lingering link back to the Byzantine Empire. It was the real Romans that popularized the name Graecus – and, hence, the ‘Gr’ stem in use in all other European languages (bar Norwegian). The word was probably taken from the name of one particular early Greek tribe that migrated west to Italy. Greek settlement in the other direction, around Ionia, the region along the eastern Asian shore of the Aegean, gave rise to the ‘Yun’ stem found in many Asian languages (such as the Turkish ‘Yunanistan’). Uniquely, though, Georgians know the Greeks simply as berdzeni, from the Georgian word for ‘wise’.
The Aegean Sea was known historically as ἀρχι – πέλαγος (arkhi – pelagos). meaning ‘Main Sea’. During the Middle Ages the sense shifted to the very many islands found within the Aegean, and by the sixteenth century the usage of ‘archipelago’ had extended to the modern sense of any assemblage of islands.
The Greek island groups are as follows:
‘Ring’ [of islands] (220, centred on the sacred island of Delos)
‘Twelve Islands’ (more accurately 150, of which 26 are inhabited)
‘Seven Islands’ (the historical name for the Ionian Islands)
‘Scattered’ [islands] (24, of which 4 are inhabited)
The Peloponnese, meaning ‘Island of Pelopas’, is technically the largest Greek island since the completion in 1893 of the sea-level Corinth Canal. As such, it has displaced Crete – formerly known in English as Candy.
Known in Greek as κεράτιον (keration – literally ‘little horns’), the long flat pods of the carob tree were one of the most important sweeteners of the Hellenic world. The tree’s seeds also found use as weights for measuring small items and, in this sense, they have given rise to the English word ‘carat’ – the standard unit of weight for diamonds and other gemstones (standardized since 1907 at 0.2 grams).
In post-classical Greek the word for ‘beauty’ (ὡραῖος, horaios) originally meant ‘timely’. The prevailing aesthetic was that appearance should match one’s age. Thus both a young girl and a dignified matron could qualify as having horaios, but never an older woman trying to recapture her youth, nor a teenager dressing like a dame.
According to Greek convention the length of time a woman should wear the black of mourning depends upon her relationship with the deceased:
These periods may be lengthened where death is at an unexpectedly young age or in an especially tragic manner. Cessation of mourning should not be undertaken abruptly. Dark brown or blue clothes must be worn for a transitional period before a normal wardrobe is resumed. A widow may remarry only after her former husband’s corpse has been exhumed. Under the rules of the Greek Orthodox Church this is forbidden until the longer of three years or full decomposition down to a skeleton.
Within the Greek Orthodox Church, Monday is a fast day in many monasteries: the day is set aside for the commemoration of angels, and monks aspire to lead an angelic life. All Greeks consider Tuesdays unlucky (as Constantinople fell on a Tuesday), and Tuesday, not Friday, the thirteenth is feared most greatly by the superstitious.
As knowledge of classical Greek faded among Europe’s medieval monks, passages of ancient texts in the language were frequently merely copied by the terse phrase ‘Graecumest; non legitur’ (‘It is Greek; it can’t be read’). Picked up by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, the phrase became ‘it was Greek to me’, and the words have since been repeated ad infinitum down to the present. English is by no means the only language that finds the metaphor handy. Most others have something roughly equivalent, but details often vary. In Greece, for obvious reasons they prefer to say: ‘It seems to me Chinese.’
1.^‘The potter places the handles wherever he wishes.’