The Greek language (ελληνική γλώσσα) is one of the oldest and longest documented of the Indo-European languages in use today dating back at least 35 centuries! Therefore, it’s no surprise that many of the names in use today have been borrowed from this ancient language. Fraternity brothers and Sorority sisters across America may be able to tell you that the Greek alphabet provided the basis for the Latin alphabet. Much of the foundation of “western” civilization came to us from the Greeks – the epic works of Homer, the philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle, and even the Christian New Testament was written in Greek. The Byzantium Empire and Eastern Orthodox Church were mainly influenced by the Greeks. The Roman Republic borrowed heavily from Greek mythology, government, literature and language. We know today that the nation of Greece suffers from severe economic issues, but trust us, we owe them a lot.
During the period known as Classical Antiquity (covering roughly 1500 years between the 7th century BC to the 7th century AD), Greece was one of the main languages of the Mediterranean region. Today, there are over 50,000 words in the English language derived from the Greek language (the English language has also been influenced by the Latin and Celtic languages but primarily Germanic). It’s estimated that 12% of the English language comes from the Greeks. Over 3000 years ago, the predominant languages were Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Egyptian. So the Greeks pretty much kick ass. The Greeks are directly responsible for many of the given names in the panoply of first names in the English language today. In the 2nd century BC the Roman Republic conquered the Greek Corinthians and Greece essentially became part of the Roman Empire until the 4th century AD. During that period, the two cultures and languages further comingled and influenced each other, but particularly the Hellenistic influence was more powerful. Greek was the original language of the New Testament as it was the most dominant language of the Mediterranean world, particularly among the Gentiles. Names which we readily recognize from the New Testament are Greek in origin, starting with the name “Christ” (which gave us the Christian, Christopher and Christine names). Andrew, Peter, Thomas, Timothy, Philip and Silas are familiar names from the New Testament with Greek origins. We get names like Angel/Angela (“messenger”), Ariana (“most holy”), and Evangeline (“good tidings”) from the Greek language. Even New Testament Greek names mentioned briefly in passing like Chloe, Rhoda and Berenice were eagerly embraced since so few women played central roles in the Christian New Testament. Medieval Europe was also highly influenced by names of early saints, many of whom had Greek names (Gregory, Anastasia, Sebastian, Catherine).
Aside from the obvious influence the Greek language had on naming choices in Western civilization thanks to the New Testament and early saints, the Greeks had already made their mark long before Jesus Christ came onto the stage – in fact, centuries and centuries before that. Mythological characters from the colorful and ancient Greek tradition offer a bevy of choices. By the seventh century B.C. Hesiod put written order to these oral traditions and began constructing the genealogies of the great gods and goddesses and primordial men and women. Lucky for us, too, because these magnificent legends and stories offer parents some exotic and multifaceted name choices. For women, we get such names as Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Callista, Cassandra, Cynthia, Daphne, Eurydice, Harmony, Helen, Iris, Pandora, Penelope, Phoebe, and Selena. Even the ultra-popular Catherine finds its roots in the Greek earth goddess Hecate. The pool of names for boys is a little smaller since most parents won’t name their kid Zeus or Poseidon. But they could consider Apollo, Hector, Jason, Orion, Troy or Paris.
Beyond mythology and the New Testament, we have borrowed many more names from Greek tradition. Of course, the most famous and heavily used would be Alexander and his many female counterparts (Alexandra, Alexandria, Lexi, etc). Alexander the Great was one of the most revered in antiquity throughout the Mediterranean. He was one of the greatest military generals ever and, apropos, his name means “defender of mankind”. The Greeks gave us other names with celebratory meaning: Andrew (brave, manly, virile), George (farmer), Leon (lion), Nicholas (people of victory), Philip (lover of horses), Sebastian (venerable), and Stephen (crown). For girls, there’s Helen (ray of light), Chloe (young green shoot), Lyric (song on a lyre), Melissa (honey bee), Sophia (wisdom), Tiffany (God appears) and Zoe (life).