Playing with words

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By Teresa Saunderseducational journalist and children’s writer

Explore the Greek words that still appear in our language today

How many Greek words do you know? Before you start counting them on one hand, think again! Every day we use a great many words that have their roots in Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks lived a long time before electricity, telephones and microchips were invented, but each time we mention these marvels of modern life, we are using words based on their ancient language. The Romans brought these words to our shores more than 2000 years ago. They had previously conquered Greece and had absorbed a great many aspects of the country’s life into their own culture – the language in particular.

It is easy to recognise words derived from Greek; they appear regularly in prefixes and suffixes, such as poly or phone. Sometimes whole words comprise a Greek prefix and suffix joined together, such as telegram or telegraph. Strangely enough, it is in the modern sciences, medicine and technology, where we see a proliferation of these ancient words. The Greek word for study is ology – one of the best known of all suffixes. Many words with Greek origins surprise and impress us. Petra, meaning rock, is the basis for our word petroleum and also the boys name Peter. Elektron, meaning amber, is the root for our word electricity. This is because amber becomes charged with electricity when it is rubbed.

Ages 7-9

The clue’s in the word

Learning objective: to find out which words that we use today originate from the Greek language.

  • A number of words that we use for animals have come from the Greek language. Ask the children to look at these clues and try to work out the name of each animal:
    • denios sauros: terrible lizard
    • hippos potamus: horse river
    • rhin keras: nose horn
  • List some of the best-known prefixes, such as tele, mega, micro and auto. How many words can the children find that use them?
  • Explain to the children that the Greek word for study is ology and that it is used as a suffix for many school or academic studies. Challenge the children to write down as many ‘ologies’, and their meanings, as they can.
  • Point out to the children that when they sit down to do their maths, they will frequently be using Greek words. Write these Greek numbers on a large sheet of paper and challenge the children to find mathematical words that originate from them. Can the children work out which numbers they are, from the words they discover?
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