Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

It’s All Greek to Me

© 2016 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Είναι όλα ελληνικά για μένα. Okay, got that? Just in case your Greek is a little rusty, according to https://translate.google.com, it's the title of this essay written in Greek. That statement is often used in English to suggest that something is not understandable. That is, "For all the sense it made, it might as well have been written in Greek!"

According to Wikipedia, "The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language since the 8th century BC. It was derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, and was the first alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants. It is the ancestor of the Latin and Cyrillic scripts. Apart from its use in writing the Greek language, in both its ancient and its modern forms, the Greek alphabet today also serves as a source of technical symbols and labels in many domains of mathematics, science and other fields."

For those of us whose only alphabet is the Latin one used by English and other western languages, like other alphabets, the Greek alphabet is just another set of symbols with corresponding sounds. As such, if you insist on confusing yourself when trying to follow it, you surely will! [If you've been following my "What is Normal?" series, you'll know that one person's normal can vary widely from another's.]

More than 45 years ago, for four years in high school, I was a student of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, so I was exposed to Greek letters on a regular basis. Now I apologize to those of you who are still in therapy over those classes, but do the symbols π, α, β, Δ, θ, and λ look at least a little bit familiar? Hopefully, you remember the first one, the humble pi (pun intended)! For more information than you probably want to know about such symbols, click here.

The Cyrillic alphabet, as used by modern-day Russian and the languages of a number of Slavic countries, is derived from Greek. It came from Greece via Bulgaria, and is named after Saint Cyril, who was involved in creating an earlier alphabet.

In this essay, we'll look at how various Greek letters still influence the daily lives of many people outside Greece. In particular, we'll mention how Greek letters feature prominently in university life in the US, in college fraternity and sorority names.

The Greek Alphabet

Here are the 24 letters written in English, followed by their upper- and lowercase symbols, listed in Greek-alphabet order, along with some current uses and notes:

Alpha Α α:

  • The Latin letter A/a is derived from this
  • As the first letter, it often signifies first or beginning, as in alpha male, to indicate a dominant social position
  • Alpha Centuri is the brightest star in the constellation Centaurus
  • The angle in a triangle opposite side A
  • An alpha version of a product or computer program is a precursor to a beta version
  • alpha particle
  • The word alphabet comes from the combination of alpha and beta

Beta Β β:

  • The Latin letter B/b is derived from this
  • A beta version of something is not quite ready for primetime, while beta testing involves testing an early release of a product
  • The angle in a triangle opposite side B
  • The Betamax videotape recording format
  • US and British English differ on the pronunciation of this letter's name
  • [Not to be confused with the German letter ß (eszett)]

Gamma Γ γ:

Delta Δ δ:

  • The Latin letter D/d is derived from this
  • The uppercase letter is a triangle, commonly the shape of a river's delta, hence the Nile delta
  • The uppercase letter signifies an incremental change

Epsilon Ε ε:

  • The Latin letter E/e is derived from this

Zeta Ζ ζ:

  • The Latin letter Z/z is derived from this

Eta Η η:

  • The Latin letter H/h is derived from this

Theta Θ θ:

  • Used to represent an angle

Iota Ι ι:

  • The Latin letters I/i and J/j are derived from this
  • In English, an iota is a very small amount
  • The Spanish letter J is called jota, while the German J is called jot

Kappa Κ κ:

  • The Latin letter K/k is derived from this

Lambda Λ λ:

  • The Latin letter L/l is derived from this
  • Support for lambda functions (or closures) are becoming more prevalent in computer programming languages
  • Lambda calculus
  • [Under the Soviets, St. Petersburg was called Leningrad. While there in 1992, I recall seeing "mileposts" leading to/from that city showing Λxx, where xx was the number of kilometers to/from Leningrad.]

Mu Μ μ:

  • The Latin letter M/m is derived from this
  • The lowercase letter is used to represent micro, or one millionth

Nu Ν ν:

  • The Latin letter N/n is derived from this

Xi Ξ ξ:

  • The uppercase version is sometimes used in company names or corporate logos as a stylized "E"

Omicron Ο ο:

  • The Latin letter O/o is derived from this

Pi Π π:

  • The lowercase letter is the mathematic symbol for pi, as in the area of a circle is πr2.

Rho Ρ ρ:

  • The Latin letter R/r is derived from this
  • [Not to be confused with the Latin letter P/p; while visiting Russia, I constantly reminded myself that Russian P = Latin R, not Latin P!]

Sigma Σ σς:

  • There are two lowercase forms, each being used in a different context
  • In mathematics, the uppercase letter is used for the summation of a series of terms

Tau Τ τ:

  • The Latin letter T/t is derived from this

Upsilon Υ υ:

  • The Latin letters U/u, V/v, W/w, and Y/y are derived from this
  • The German letter Y/y is called üpsilon
  • The Spanish letter Y/y is called i griega, which literally is Greek I/i

Phi Φ φ:

Chi Χ χ:

  • The Latin letter X/x is derived from this
  • According to Wikipedia, chi (as in X) is often used to abbreviate the name Christ, as in the holiday Christmas (Xmas).

Psi Ψ ψ:

  • A symbol for the planet Neptune

Omega Ω ω:

  • Often used to mean the last or the end

Christianity has the term Alpha and Omega.

Student Fraternities and Sororities

In the US, many 4-year colleges and universities have chapters of national fraternities and sororities, which are social organizations for students. The names of these organizations are combinations of Greek letters, the first being the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in 1776. (Other examples are Alpha Delta Phi, Alpha Tau Omega, and Phi Sigma Kappa. Alpha Lambda Delta is a US National Honor Society.)

If you were fortunate enough to see the movie Revenge of the Nerds, you will know about its fraternity for nerds, Lambda Lambda Lambda.

Other Greek Influences

Here are some common English words that were derived from Greek: amphitheater, anarchy, antique, architect, baritone, cosmopolitan, diameter, encyclopedia, geometry, grammar, hydraulics, isosceles, kilogram, microscope, neurotic, octopus, philanthropy, surgeon, telegraph, and zoology.

Greek letters also appear in popular culture phrases or designations such as Delta Force, the US Army's special detachment used to bring about change in our best interests. Also, the TV series Alpha House, which is a political satire about a house shared in Washington DC by Republican Senators.

For a discussion of English words having Greek origin, click here.

And, of course, we have the Zodiac and the very extensive Greek Mythology.


In my high school in rural South Australia, students were divided into four so-called houses, which competed against each other, primarily in sporting events. Alpha house's color was yellow, Beta's was blue, Gamma's was green, and Delta's was red. I was in Alpha house.

When moving from Australia to the US in 1979, my unlimited-stopover, open-use, airline ticket included a leg from Bombay, India, to Athens, Greece, and then onto Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, when I was ready to leave Bombay, there was no space available on flights to Athens for nearly a week, so I elected to bypass Greece and go straight to Italy. Now, 37 years later, I still haven't been to Greece. C'est la vie, or perhaps I should say, Έτσι είναι η ζωή.