Q. The word for "Greece" in the native Greek is "Hellas," so how did it become "Greece" in English? Even the word "Hellenic" is an English word meaning "having to do with Greek culture." And how did we get "Germany" from "Deutschland"?
A. I wondered this, too, while watching on television the 2004 Olympics in Athens and hearing the crowd chant "Hell-as! Hell-as!"
It turns out that both "Greece" and "Hellas" have Greek roots, but "Greece" was adopted by the Romans (as the Latin word "Graecus"), and later adopted into English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says Aristotle uses "Graiko" as the name for the first inhabitants of the region.
"Germany" also comes from Latin. The Romans called a large European region "Germania," which they apparently borrowed from the Gauls (the ancestors of the French), according to the OED. (The name may come from the Old Irish word "gair," meaning "neighbor," or "gairm," meaning "battle cry.")
English actually started out using "Dutch" (from the Old German word for "people" or "nation") as the adjective for both Germany and the Netherlands. But beginning in the 1500s, English speakers started to restrict "Dutch" to the Netherlands and picked up "German" for, well, Germany, even while the Germans themselves kept Deutschland."
Q. My native language is Greek, and I notice when a word is used in English with a different meaning than the original Greek one. This makes me wonder if those words really have a different meaning or they are simply misused. For example, "eon" in Greek means 100 years, but in English it means a very long but unspecified time. "Dilemma" is used in English to mean "problem." In Greek it means a difficult choice between two (and only two) options.
-- Theo Vlahopoulos, Chicago
A. `Aion' is pretty flexible in Greek," says Helma Dik, a classics professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in Greek linguistics. "The specific `century' meaning is relatively recent. For the ancient Greeks, standard time reckoning as we know it didn't exist."
The word "eon" doesn't appear in English until about the 1600s, usually with the meaning of "eternity," especially in religious and poetic use. Since then, scientists have assigned "eon" as the standard term for one billion years, because British English used to use "milliard" for the American "billion" and "billion" for the American "trillion."
"Dilemma" literally means "two assumptions," because the Greek "lemma" means "thing taken" or "assumption," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. A usage note in the Merriam-Webster entry says we shouldn't worry about the literal meaning. People who say "dilemma" are not trying to talk about how many choices they have, Merriam-Webster argues, but rather "the unsatisfactoriness of the options."