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Greek for Economists

The terminology of political economy owes a profound debt to the language of ancient Greece, including for the words "political" and "economy". Here are a few examples.


From autos (adj.) = (one-)self. Thus aut|archy = rule by one person, aut|arky = self-sufficiency, auto|cracy = rule by one person, auto|nomy = self-rule. People who should know better often confuse autarky with autarchy.


From aristos (adj.) = best. Thus aristo|cracy = rule by the best people.


From kubernetes (noun) = steersman. Thus cybernetics = the science of control systems based on self-aware error correction; the association of cybernetics with the study of information flows gives rise to our modern use of terms such as cyber|space to describe the information properties of the internet. From the same word-stem come the English noun government, French gouvernement, and Russian guberniia.


From demos (noun) = people. Thus demo|cracy = rule by the people.


From oikos (noun) = household. Thus eco|nomy = laws of the household, since in classical times the great majority lived, worked, consumed, and were taxed, in family household establishments; also eco|no(m)|metric = relating to economic measurement.


From endon (prep.) = within. Thus endo|genous = internal in conception.


From exo (adverb) = outside. Thus exo|genous = external in conception.


From heteros (adj.) = other. Thus hetero|geneous = different in conception.


From hieros (adj.) = sacred. Thus hier|archy = rule by priests. Our modern sense of hierarchy as a multi-level organisation of principals and agents is then derived from the eastern Christian Orthodox church.


From homos (adj.) = same. Thus homo|geneous = same in conception.


From husteros (adj.) = later. Thus hysteresis = lagged causation. By extension, hysteresis is used in the study of labour markets to describe the dependence of the equilibrium rate of unemployment upon its past values. It is unconnected with the word hysteria, from hustera (noun) = womb.


From kleptein (verb) = to steal. Thus klepto|cracy = rule by thieves.


From makros (adj.) = large. Thus macro|eco|nomy = economy of the large unit.


From mikros (adj.) = small. Thus micro|eco|nomy = economy of the small unit.


From monos (adj.) = one, single. Thus mon|archy = state of one ruler, mono|poly = market with one seller, mon|opsony = market with one buyer.


From oligos (adj.) = few. Thus olig|archy = rule by a few, oligo|poly = market with few sellers, olig|opsony = market with few buyers.


From ploutos (adj.) = rich. Thus pluto|cracy = rule by the rich.


From polis (noun) = city. Thus politics = affairs of state, organised in classical times by the Mediterranean city-states such as Athens and Rome.


From polus (adj.) = many. Thus poly|archy = rule by many. Don't confuse poly- at the beginning of a word with -poly at the end of a word. The plural of polus is polloi, thus hoi polloi may be used in English conversation to refer to "the many" or the masses, usually in a somewhat snobby, exclusive manner based on the presumption that the speaker is educated in the classics, therefore not one of hoi polloi; any representatives of hoi polloi who are accidentally present and listening will lack the education to understand that it is they who are being discussed. To carry this off you must first be able to pronounce it properly, stressing the first and third syllables: hoi' pol-loi'.


From arkhein (verb) = to rule. See also aut(o)-, hier-, olig(o)-, poly-.


From arkein = to suffice. See also aut(o)-.


From kratein (verb) = to rule. See also aristo-, auto-, demo-, klepto-, pluto-.

-genous, geneous

From genos (noun) = birth, lineage, descent. See exo-, endo-, hetero-, homo-.


From metron (noun) = measure. See eco-.


From nomos (noun) = human law. See also aut(o)-, eco-.


From hopson (noun) = prepared food, and oneisthai (verb) = to buy. See also mon(o)-, olig(o)-.


From polein (verb) = to sell. See also mon(o)-, olig(o)-. Don't confuse -poly at the end of a word with poly- at the beginning of a word.

Thanks to Margaret Midgeley for helpful advice.


Mark Harrison

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