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Getting started on ancient Greek
Getting started on ancient Greek

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3 Prefixes

Greek words can also appear at the start of English words, as prefixes. You have already encountered bio- from βίος (‘life’). Here are three more examples, each of which can still be used to produce new words:

  • poly- (πολύ, much, many): polygamy, polymath, polyphony
  • pan- (πᾶν, all): pandemic, pandemonium, panorama, pan-European
  • pseudo- (ψευδής, false): pseudonym, pseudo-science

One rich source of prefixes are prepositions – words like ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘through’, or ‘to’ that accompany a noun to form a phrase:

  • up the mountain
  • down the river
  • through the forest
  • on the road

English prepositions, like Greek, can be found as prefixes at the beginning of words:

Activity 5 Prepositions

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Identify the English prepositions at the start of these words.

  1. uptake
  2. downbeat
  3. afterthought
  4. throughput
  5. onset
  6. byproduct


  1. up-take
  2. down-beat
  3. after-thought
  4. through-put
  5. on-set
  6. by-product

Now, familiarise yourself with some Greek prepositions, all of which can be found at the start of English words. Read them aloud and, for this exercise, focus as much on the shape and the sound as the meanings.

  • ἀνά     up, upon
  • ἀπό     from
  • διά      on account of, through
  • ἐκ     out of
  • ἐπί      on, at, to
  • κατά    down, along, over
  • παρά   beside, against
  • περί     about
  • σύν      with
  • ὑπέρ    over, above
  • ὑπό      under

Using the list of prepositions, identify the two parts of the following English words.


analysis = ana + lysis (literally, ‘a breaking up’)

  1. apocalypse
  2. catastrophe
  3. diaspora
  4. ecstatic
  5. epidemic
  6. hyperbole
  7. hypothesis
  8. paradox
  9. periphrasis
  10. synthesis


  1. apocalypse    apo + calypse (‘unveiling’)
  2. catastrophe   cata + strophe (‘overturning’)
  3. diaspora     dia + spora (‘scattering about’)
  4. ecstatic       ec + stasis (‘standing outside [oneself]’)
  5. epidemic     epi + demic (‘among, or in, the people’)
  6. hyperbole      hyper + bole (‘overshooting’)
  7. hypothesis    hypo + thesis (‘an underlying assumption’)
  8. paradox      para + dox (‘against expectation’)
  9. periphrasis    peri + phrasis (‘a roundabout way of saying something’)
  10. synthesis    syn + thesis (‘putting together’, ‘combining’)

Once again, there are instances here where the roots of a word are not a reliable guide to its current meaning. An ‘apocalypse’ is literally an ‘unveiling’ or ‘uncovering’, from καλύπτω, ‘I cover’. In the New Testament book of Revelation – whose original title is ‘The Apocalypse of John’ (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου) – what is ‘unveiled’ is a series of divine revelations concerning the end of the earth. These certainly include the catastrophes with which the word ‘apocalypse’ is now associated, although for Christian readers these are signs of the impending arrival of the Kingdom of God.