When we speak or write, we use the vehicles of words to carry meaning, as well as energy, from ourselves to another person or group of people. We may be speaking to our baby, our boss, or to an audience of 500 people. We may be writing a love letter, a work-related memo, or an entry in our own diary. Whatever the case, each word we speak or write has a life of its own, a vibratory signature that creates waves in the same way that a note of music creates waves. And like musical notes, our words live in communities of other words and change in relation to the words that surround them. When we are conscious of the energy behind our words, we become capable of making beautiful music in the world. If we are unconscious of the power of words, we run the risk of creating a noisy disturbance.
Some of us know this instinctively, while others come to this understanding slowly. Most of us, though, speak without thinking at least some of the time, blurting out our feelings and thoughts without much regard for the words we choose to express them. When we remind ourselves that our words have an impact on the world at the level of energy, we may find within ourselves the desire to be more aware of our use of language.
A fun way to increase our sensitivity to the power of words is to simply make a list of our favorite words and notice the energy they contain. We can write them down and post them where we can see them, or we can speak them aloud, feeling them reverberate in our bodies and in the air around us. This is like learning to consciously play an instrument that we have been playing unconsciously for most of our lives, and the effect can be startling and delightful. As we grow more comfortable and confident playing the instrument of language, we will begin to compose beautiful messages, creating positive energy every time we write or speak.
The Scribal Origins of the English alphabet is descended, via the Latin, from the Greek alphabet, which, according to Herodotus, was adapted from the Phoenician alphabet in the time of Cadmus. The Phoenicians were seagoing traders from the eastern Mediterranean, who needed a system of writing to keep track of the merchandise they ferried throughout the ancient world. Cadmus, a prince of Phoenicia, was the legendary founder of Thebes, a city peopled by warriors who sprang up after he sowed the earth with the teeth of a dragon, on instructions from Athena. Aeschylus had a different version of events, attributing the alphabet to Prometheus: writing, like fire, was a gift from the gods. Letters were sacred. Inscribed randomly on a shard of pottery, even without being arranged into a name or a coherent thought, they could be presented as an offering at the temple of Zeus.
The Greeks’ genius was to take the Phoenician alphabet, which consisted of twenty-two consonants, and add vowels to it. Alpha was adapted from aleph, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet, the sound of which was barely a sound at all—it was more like the brief redirection of breath known to linguists as a glottal stop. It creates the hitch in “uh-oh.” Other Phoenician “gutturals” gave the Greeks names for some of their vowels. The Greek eta looks like our letter “H” and today represents a long “e” sound (ee), as opposed to the short “e” sound of epsilon. Ayin, which was round like an eye, became omicron—literally, “small O.” Later, the Greeks added upsilon, which probably had the sound of “u” (oo) but has evolved into an “e” (ee) sound in modern Greek. They rounded out the alphabet with omega (Ω), “big O,” the shape of which is open at the end. The Greek alphabet is infinite.
The Greeks also added consonants for sounds they needed that the Phoenicians didn’t have. Like many Americans, I didn’t encounter Greek Scribal Origins until I went to college and was puzzled by the symbols attached to the façades of fraternity houses: a gigantic X (chi), a bold Ψ (psi), an impenetrable Φ (phi). In modern Greek, phi sounds like “f,” but it is usually transliterated from ancient Greek as “ph.” Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, was Philippos in Greek: lover (phílos) of horses (híppos). Psi, which may be my favorite letter, can be found at the beginning of every English word that is a variant of “psyche”: “psychology,” “psychotherapy,” “psychiatry,” “psychoanalyst,” “psychosomatic,” “psychopath,” “psychopharmacopoeia”—all relatives of Psyche, the lover of Eros, who was the son of Aphrodite. Psi looks like a trident, attribute of Poseidon, god of the sea, and it is the first letter in the modern-Greek word for “fish”: ψάρι (psári).
Chi, which looks like an “X,” is most often transliterated as a hard “ch,” as in “chaos.” The trickster of the Greek alphabet, it is not the same as our English “X”—no way. For that, the Greeks have the letter xi (Ξ). Speakers of English sometimes have trouble knowing how to pronounce Greek-derived words with “ch” in them—“chalcedony,” “chiropodist,” “chimera”—because “ch” also represents the sound in such English words as “church” and “cheese.” Greeks often struggle to pronounce our soft “ch,” which is why, in the Greek-diner skits on the old “Saturday Night Live,” John Belushi calls out, “Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger. Tseezbourger.”
The character “X” has a nonalphabetical use that is common to both languages. According to
“Scribes and Scholars,” a 1968 study by L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson of how Greek and Roman literature was preserved and transmitted through the ages, one of the ways that scholars at the Library of Alexandria notated a point of textual interest was by writing the letter chi in the margin. In the early eighties, when I was working as a sort of scribe in the collating department of The New Yorker, the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, would sometimes pencil an X with a circle around it in the margin of a galley proof to indicate a query that he wanted us to carry over to the next version of the piece. The query might be important, but he did not yet have enough information to address it. We scribes would circle it in blue and copy it onto the next day’s proof, to remind Mr. Shawn to ask the author about it. If the collator put the query directly into the piece, or if the editor tried to make a fix without being sure what the author meant, there was a danger of corrupting the text. that X is the original, maybe even the aboriginal, written mark. X marks the spot, its crossed bars creating a fixed point. X is also the traditional signature of an illiterate, so it is both precise and general: anyone can use it to make one’s mark. It may be the most useful symbol of all. How did the Phoenicians get along without it?
Major forms of the modern language: demotic, which is the people’s language, and Katharevousa, puristic Greek, which was devised by some intellectual Greeks in the early nineteenth century to yoke the modern language to its glorious past. Until the nineteen-seventies, Katharevousa was the official language of Greece, used in legal documents and news reporting, although people rarely spoke it.
ílios, “sun,” and eucharistó, “thank you.” To remember words in a foreign language, you make associations with your own tongue, and it thrilled me to realize that the Greek ílios had come into English as Helios. What in English is the sun god is, in Greek, the everyday word for the sun. Greek seemed to exalt the everyday. In eucharistó, I recognized Eucharist, the bread and wine that miraculously become the body and blood of Christ. In Greece, this word—pronounced “efkharisto”—gets tossed around several times an hour. The English “thank you” does not carry the reciprocal meaning of a gift both granted and received in the sense that glows out of Eucharist: the prefix eu, as in Eugenia (wellborn) or “euphemism” (nice, kind, gentle phrase), plus cháris, from which come “charisma” and “charism” (used by religious communities to mean a particular vocation or gift). The Greek term is an exchange of grace.
Spring is ánoixi, from the verb ανοίγω, “open, uncork”—the year opens. Summer is kalokaíri: “good weather.” Phthinóporo is the fall, suggestive of the last harvest and overripe fruit (the consonant cluster at the beginning, “phth,” at first seems rude to an English speaker, as if you were spitting out a cherry pit). Winter, kheimónas, is a time of storms and of scraping by till spring.
“Διψάς;” (Dipsás?) I knew that a dipsomaniac was someone with an insatiable thirst, but to hear Dorothy use the verb διψάω in the second-person singular present tense and match it with my parched throat felt like a revelation. The word “autochthonous” (autós, “self,” plus chthón, “earth”), which means something like “self-generated from the earth” and contains a tricky consonant cluster in the transliteration of chi (χ) and theta. "Ooporphyrin” I figured had something to do with an egg (ὠόν) and the color purple (porphyry, the deep-red stone): a reference to some fabulous creature that lays purple eggs? Close. It is the characteristic pigment of brown eggshells. The champion won on the word “koinonia.” This I had a bead on, because I knew that Koine was the word for Biblical Greek. Koine is the common tongue, like lingua franca. So koinonia is the shared spirit in a community of believers. The bee pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a former champion, offered alternative pronunciations of “koinonia,” one with the “oi” of classical Greek and one with the “ee” of the modern language. A boy progressed to the next round on “Mnemosyne”—Memory, mother of the Muses, who gave us the mnemonic device and who ought to be the presiding deity of spelling bees.
Words referring to nature come from Greek: “ocean,” “dolphin,” “hippopotamus,” “peony,” “elephant.” Some of the words that come from ancient Greek (and survive in modern Greek) are for exotic creatures. “Octopus” is from the Greek: ὀκτώ (eight) + πούς (foot) = eight-legger. Like the octopus, the medusa, or jellyfish, is one of the original sea monsters. So is the seahorse—híppos (horse) + kámpos (sea monster), which lends its name to the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped part of the brain’s temporal lobe. “Narcissus” (nárkissos) was the ancient-Greek word for the flower, native to southern Europe, that we commonly call the daffodil. The word “narcissus” is related to the Greek nárke, or torpor, numbness, a narcotic quality; it comes from the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who became entranced by his own reflection. He is the timeless personification of the flower, accounting for its existence. The hyacinth is another flower with a myth attached: Hyacinthus was a Greek youth beloved of Apollo, who killed him accidentally. From the boy’s blood sprang flowers
The Myth of Narcissus