words by Mihalis Boutaris

In the sequel of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of the grandsons of Gus, the stereotypical Greek-American patriarch, has fully adopted the habit of deriving the origins of any conceivable word of American English directly from ancient Greek. Upon explaining (in a most incredulous way) the etymology of a random word, he echoes his grandfather’s exclamation: “There you go!”

This exaggeration is one of the key triggers of laughter in both the original film and its sequel. It is also the reason my foreign friends often tease me… But there is some truth to it: More than 50,000 English words are transliterations of Greek words. Some are used mainly in scientific terminology, but many are used every day.

For the sake of continuing the fun, I picked out a few that are related to the world of food and wine. Here are some geeky ones that come to mind:

  • Ampelography: the science of identifying and classifying different vines and grape varieties. It stems from the words “ampelos” (άμπελος) [vine in Greek] and “graphy” (γραφή) [writing, record-keeping]
  • Microclimate: “micro” (μικρό) [little] + “climate” (κλίμα) [climate]. It is the divergence from the average climatic conditions of an area that apply only to one of its sub-regions because of localized weather phenomena, that only occur there due to some special land formation. Microclimates are particularly important for winemaking. Especially in Greece due to the prevalence of mountains and islands on a highly variegated terrain, one can be surprised by how cool a north-facing plateau could be in South Greece during a hot summer day or how humid a valley could be in an overall arid place. Grapevines do generally thrive anywhere in the world, but every microclimate gives rise to different grape and wine characteristics. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Greek word for climate (κλίμα) is so close to the word for grapevine (κλήμα)… They are both pronounced as “klima”, but written in a slightly different way for the “i” sound – climate sounding more like “klima” and grapevine more like “kleema”
  • Biodynamic: “bios” (βίος) [life] + «dynami” (δύναμη) [force]. Biodynamic wines are becoming more and more known. The theory behind them is based on the aspiration of a biodynamic winemaker to become a mere steward of the life force of a vineyard and winery with all the micro and macro factors that come into play, to produce a product that is as free from artificial interventions as possible.

Furthermore, there are some ordinary cases that are not readily recognizable as words that come from the wine culture of ancient Greeks. For instance:

  • Symposium: < symposio (συμπόσιο) < “syn” (συν) [plus, together, jointly, added] + “pinw” (πίνω) [to drink] = literally “to drink together”. Today the meaning of the word symposium is used almost exclusively for scientific conferences. In ancient Greece, but sometimes still in modern Greece, drinking wine together was not an end in itself, but a means of gaining knowledge. The subject was invariably philosophical, but at the time, philosophy was all about science and politics and any subject of discussion for that matter to find the best way to live. So a wine gathering was really a way to expand the horizons of the mind and through discussion come up with better ideas about which way of life was better, how one could solve a technical problem and so on and so forth. The role of the symposia was to promote the intellectual curiosity and emotional maturity of free-born citizens.
  • Gastronomy: gastronomia (γαστρονομία) < “gastra” (γάστρα) [belly] + “nomos” [law] = the rules of what and how one should eat and drink wine, since for Greeks wines have been always been considered part of food – not an alcoholic beverage. Wine styles in different parts of Greece are markedly different from each other and they all seem to be an ideal match to the local cuisine.
  • Tragedy: tragodia (τραγωδία) < “tragos” (τράγος) [male goat] + “ode” (ωδή) [ode, song, oration] = literally and metaphorically “tragedy”. Tragic poetry in classical times originates from prehistoric rituals associated with wine drinking. Goatskins were used in ancient times to store wine, as well as to make bagpipes. The combination of ecstatic music, wine-induced inebriety, and feasts was central to these “tragic” rituals – all related to goats. Goat milk was also a liquid of living force like wine governed by the force of Dionysus, the wine deity worshipped by ancient Greeks to assign meaning to the seemingly miraculous phenomenon of winemaking and its psychotropic effects.
  • Crater: “kratir” (κρατήρ) = ornate jug to mix water with wine. It was not until the Age of Enlightenment in West Europe that sulfites at very low concentrations started being used in wine to stop bacteria from turning wine into vinegar. Until then, the main method of preserving wine was to keep it sweet. Antique wines like the Greek Vinsanto, medieval wines like the Italian Vinsanto and Madeira were examples of how wine could keep its fruit and weather through highly oxidative conditions. A combination of high residual sugar and alcohol would mean that the symposia would end up being too short to reach the goal set for learning, so ancient Greeks used a “kratir” to dilute the potent wines of the time with water. The other side of the same coin was that wine was used to actually disinfect water and make it potable – they had realized that stagnant water which was the norm would most likely kill them, unless they mixed it with wine. A kratir could be quite big depending on the size of the drinking party. Some really big “kratires” must have inspired the first geologists to call craters by this name…

Finally, there is one more case I’d like to point out: the etymology of the word sommelier. It’s not Greek in any way, although the profession of the sommelier is as ancient as Greece. The job of the sommelier in ancient Greece was to know the origins of the wine, source it and store it much like today.

In addition, the job entailed blending the selected wine with water in a kratir at a dilution rate that would keep all the guests at the same pace of sobriety and extend the wine drinking gathering as late as possible. Part of the job was to keep the guests sober, but tipsy enough to keep the symposium going.

Inspiration and eloquence were the objectives of the symposium members and the sommeliers “oinochooi” had the responsibility to unleash the magical powers of wine to this end. The Greek word for sommelier is “oinochoos” < “oinos” (οίνος) [wine] + “heo” (χέω) [to pour]. If I were to ask Gus or his grandson to derive the word from Greek, they would probably come up with something as far-fetched as this: “sommelier” < “soma” (σώμα) [body] + “elia” (ελιά) [olive, olive tree] = young wine waiter as slender as the divine olive tree, the gift of Goddess Athena, pouring her wisdom into my wine cup!

There you go!