Vocabulary from Classical Roots

Most English academic vocabulary is from classical roots, as well as a surprising number of common English words. . A look through the General Service List  (the 2000+ most frequent words in English) shows that about 1/4 of those most common words-- and over 1/3 of the words in the second half of the list-- have Latin or Greek roots. On the Academic Word List, it’s closer to 2/3.

classic Greek columns

You can study nearly 1/3 of those on the root pages in EnglishHints.com. I have tried to emphasize roots that have many useful words, especially words common in academic writing and on tests like the TOEFL, IELTS, and GRE.

On this page there's a short discussion of the reasons so many academic words have classical roots, and then some examples of vocabulary from classical roots and an opposites matching quiz to test your understanding. (These links let you jump straight to the Greek and Latin root sections or the matching practice.)

Why should this matter to you? Recognizing a fairly small number of classical (Latin and Greek) roots can increase your English comprehension dramatically. Those classical roots form a part of many more English words. They can give you a clue to the meaning of unfamiliar words you read.

As a result, you can read more fluently, without stopping to look up as many words. Even more important, you can guess at meanings when you can’t use a dictionary (for example, during a test!)

classic Greek columns

Why do so many English Words have Classical Roots?

Most English words with classical roots have come from Latin by way of French. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, French was the official language of England for several hundred years.

There are also many words from Greek, both directly (especially scientific and medical terms), and indirectly due to its strong influence on Latin. For example, the Greek word pathos means suffering (or disease). It’s the root of empathy (feeling what another feels)  and sympathy (feeling ‘with’ another person.)

That root entered Latin as pati- to suffer, with the forms passio, pasivus and patheticus (roots of our words passion, passive, compassionate, and pathetic. Note that compassion and sympathy are synonyms, with almost identical meanings,) The Greek word kyklos, meaning a wheel or circle, became Latin cyclus and came into English as cycle, bicycle, cyclical, etc.

One reason so much of our academic vocabulary comes from Greek and Latin is because well-educated people in the western world before 1900 or so were expected to be able to read Latin (and often some Greek.)  Academics considered study of the classics in their original languages an important mental discipline. They also provided access to the accumulated wisdom of earlier generations.

Words from Greek Roots

Here are some examples of English words that come from classical Greek (all on the Academic Word List-- the AWL-- in common use among educated English speakers):

 ‘Analogia was a Greek (and later Roman) term originally referring to ratios in mathematics, and then for comparing things of similar proportions. Two things are analogous if they have similar proportions when compared. The term ‘world-wide web’ is based on an analogy between the Internet and the connections of a a spider web.

Analysis is a Greek (and English) word meaning the separation of something complicated into its parts (to understand it better.)

Ideology is no longer used for the study of ideas, but for a system of thinking and belief: Marxist ideology, for example. (It’s often used negatively of the doctrine of opponents, and can suggest a lack of common sense in following an official belief: taking an ideological position instead of thinking for oneself.)

A philosopher is someone who thinks systematically about life, seeking to understand it. The word comes from philos- love of + sophia- wisdom.

Theory comes from the Greek (and later Latin) word theoria from a Greek root that means to look at or think about. It has come to mean a general way of looking at a subject rather than its practice (theoretical as compared to applied science), or a way to understand something based on thinking and observation (as in the theory of gravity.)

For criteria, hypothesis, logical, psychology, scope, and thesis (as well as many other common English words from Greek), see the explanation and practice in Greek Roots.

Vocabulary from Latin Roots

There are too many words with Latin roots on the AWL to try to list them all on one page. The words in Practice with 50 Latin Word Roots are all on that list, as well as many others on the pages listed below. This page will just give a few.

Ambiguous comes from the Latin word ambiguus,  made from ambi- about or both + agere- to act or drive. It means something vague or uncertain, with several possible interpretations. Sometimes people use ambiguity intentionally, because they don’t want to take a definite stand or be clearly understood. 

Assume/assumption, consume/consumer/consumption, and presume/ presumption (each with the verb, then its noun) come from sumere- to take. To assume is to take something as fact without verifying it. It is similar to presumption: assuming beforehand that something is true, or doing something boldly, whether or not one has the right to do it. To consume is to use or use up. A consumer is a person who buys and uses products.

 ‘Classical’ come from classicus (concerning the highest class of citizens. Our words 'class' and 'classify' are related, all origining from classis, the Latin word for the division of Roman citizens into groups.) Both 'classic' and 'classical' can mean almost anything of enduring quality (‘high class’ and well-established, as distinguished from new or modern trends).

We usually use 'classical' to refer to Greek and Roman civilization from around 600 B.C. to the first few centuries A.D. So 'vocabulary from classical roots' means English words that come from Greek and Latin-- the language of the Romans. Classical music, on the other hand, is European music in the tradition of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

To dominate is to control or have very strong influence over others. It comes from dominari- to rule. The dominant person in a group is the strongest, or the one who makes the decisions. A king has dominion (the power to reign) over his dominions (the territories he controls-- also called his domain.)

Coming from miles, the Latin word for soldier,’military’ refers to anything connected with a nation’s armed forces, in contrast to civilian (from the Latin civilis- an adjective for things connected with citizenship or public life. )

The word ‘norm,’ which means a standard of measurement or judgment, comes from the Latin word norma- a carpenter’s square. ‘Normal’ originally referred to something made lining up with that tool (so something that met the usual, acceptable standard), but now just means what is usual or regular. Normal doesn’t always mean good-- just what people usually do. ‘Abnormal,’ however, does carry a value judgment. Abnormal behavior is not only unusual but troublesome. ‘Enormous’ comes from ex+norma-- out of the ordinary, but now it just means huge-- very, very large.

A successor is a person who follows another in an important position. In the U.S. the order of succession to the presidency (if something happens to the president) is the vice president, then Speaker of the House, etc. To succeed can be to follow in a position (become king when the old king dies), as well as to achieve one’s goals. Successive events are events that follow each other. These words all come from sub (‘under,’ or in this case ‘after’)+cedere-(to go).

Vocabulary from Classical Roots: Opposites Matching

Instructions: Match these words from Greek and Latin roots with their antonyms (opposites) in the 2nd column.



On this page there has only been space to look at a little of the extensive English vocabulary from classical roots. See the Words from Greek and Latin Roots for explanations of a few more words from Latin as well as a gapfill quiz using words from both pages. The Classical Roots Crossword and its answers also gives practice with both sets of words.

Other classical vocabulary pages on this site include 

You might also be interested in the List of Prefixes,  Greek and Latin Prefixes (the same prefixes, but in alphabetical order by their English meaning and separated by their language), Negative Prefix List, and List of Suffixes.

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