Howling at the moon on the way to school

I love words and the origin of words which often tell us something of the cultures from which they come. A couple of examples from my recent Greek lessons.

My tutor, Maria, knows that often I like to know the origin of Greek words and so she tells me the Ancient Greek roots because she knows it will help me to remember them. And it’s true, it does help them to stick in my memory – or some of them at least. To be honest, I need all the help I can get to remember words. There’s an awful lot of words that I can’t fix in my head with any sort of hook, so I grab any passing straw whenever I can.

A few lesson ago, I had forgotten the word for avenue or boulevard (leoforos) and was confusing it with the word for bus or coach (leoforeio). She kindly put me right and I asked why the words were similar and what the origin of them was, expecting that it was an old word for ‘road’.

“Well’, she said, “it’s made up of two words ‘leo’ (lion) and ‘foro’ (from the verb to bring). So it refers to the road down which they used to bring exotic animals, like lions, for people to see.”

“Did they have gladiators then in Greece?”, I asked.

“No, it was just for people to see them. And leoforeio was what they brought the animals in.”

It’s made me look at buses in a whole new light now.

In our last lesson before Maria went back to Greece for her summer holidays, we encounter the Greek word for wolf (likos). So playing word association, another useful technique for trying to remember vocabulary, I say “As in the English word ‘lycanthropy’?”

“Yes”, she says, “that’s right. The werewolf stories originate from the Balkan peninsula. In Ancient Greece there was a cult of Apollo where people met at night at a temple, drank the blood of a sacrifice, probably animal, but sometimes human and then went out into the forest. This was at a place called Likeio. Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens was on the site of one of these temples to Apollo, that’s how it got its name.”

In Modern Greek likeio is a secondary school and is the origin of the word lycee in French. Having taught in a French lycee for a time, I can’t swear that lycanthropy wasn’t practised, but it can’t be ruled out. Though come to think of it, the howling at the moon bit and the human sacrifices probably more accurately describes how the professeurs felt.

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