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Familiar Terms


From A Foreign Country by Fotios Sarris. Published by Dumagrad Books in 2020.

“Say it again.”

It was a Sunday evening, and apart from the droogs at the counter, there were few people in the place. I was seated by the cash register trying to read, but I was having trouble focusing.
“Ask our young scholar.”
I groaned inwardly.
“Aleko! Reh, Aleko!”
Grudgingly, I glanced up.
“Do you know
?” asked Stavros Marangopoulos.

. Do you know this word?”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Do you mean
?” said Lazaros.
“No, no,” said Stavros. “That’s when you take over an airplane. I’m talking about
.” He turned back to me. “Do you know this word, where it comes from? It means cleanliness, being clean.”
Light broke. “Hygiene.”

,” he repeated, as if correcting my pronunciation.
“What about it?”
“Do you know where it comes from?”
“No,” I said and went back to my book.
Having opened the restaurant in the morning, my father had left as soon as I’d arrived at 1:30. Now, nearing seven o’clock, the convention of droogs had been at the counter in one configuration or another all afternoon and I’d grown profoundly weary of them. I longed for peace.
“You don’t know where it comes from?”
I couldn’t suppress a sigh of exasperation.
“You’re the educated one, with all your books. You don’t know?”
“No,” I said without looking up.

,” he declared confusingly.
Was he toasting himself in triumph? I glanced up to determine what was going on.
“It’s from the Greek,” Stavros said. “Iyía. Except in English it means clean or cleanliness rather than health.”
It took me a moment to put the pieces together. I didn’t show it, but I was impressed. I was also miffed I hadn’t known this. Stavros couldn’t always be trusted on such matters, but this one seemed credible.
“It’s amazing what they’ve taken from us,” said Stelios.
“I thought the word for clean was
,” said Panayotis Toumbas.
“And not just us,” Stavros said. “Latin too.”
“English is not a real language,” said Stelios.
“Can I tell you something?” interjected Kostakis Orologas. Kostakis was once a sailor and sported an honest-to-goodness tattoo of a ship’s anchor on one arm, on the other a mermaid. These days he worked as a night cleaner.
“It’s a parasite,” said Stelios.
“It’s a language cobbled together from other languages,” said Stavros.
“Can I tell you something?” repeated Kostakis.
“It’s like the English themselves, filling their museums with the loot of other countries.”
“There’s more of the Parthenon in London than at the Acropolis.”
“I’ve seen photos. Have you seen photos of the British Museum?”
“Can I say something?” Kostakis said, raising his voice.
The others fell silent and turned to him.
“The English lifted themselves up on our books and wisdom. Enslaved for four hundred years, oppressed by ignorance and illiteracy, we had thrown out our books and learning, not knowing what we were doing.” Kostakis spoke with the grave and measured manner of a preacher. “We didn’t know these books even existed anymore. We wouldn’t have known what they were if you had shoved them in our faces. We didn’t know how to read anymore. Under the yoke of the oppressor, we had become ignorant and unlettered. So when the English came, they saw these books, they found them lying around, neglected, and they picked them up and read them. And they couldn’t believe what they saw. They understood immediately what was in them. They recognized the wisdom and value in them. And they took them. They took these books away with them.
us unlettered. While the English built themselves up on our stolen heritage. It’s on our foundation stones they’ve built their civilization, on our writers and philosophers and artists.”
“When Shakespeare was inventing the English language,” Stelios interjected, “he had to steal most of his words from Greek.”
“You all know, of course, that in English the twelve planets are named after the gods of Olympus,” said Panayotis.
“Greek is the language of medicine everywhere in the world,” said Stavros. “Whatever the local language, the doctors of every nation in the world know Greek.”
“It’s the language of science.”
“Do you know the original American constitution was written in Greek?”
“Can I say something?”
“This is why Greeks make such good doctors.”
“The first doctor was a Greek.”
“But it’s not just medicine.”
“Can I tell you something?”
“That’s why studying medicine is easy for Greeks.”
“Doctors everywhere have to take the Hippocratic oath.”
“Even in foreign universities they already know the terminology.”
“All the first scientists were Greek, physics, geometry, astronomy.”
“If you’re German or French, it’s like learning a new language, but for a Greek, they’re all familiar terms. Do you realize most of us here already know more medicine than your average Canadian medical student?”
“Biology, chemistry, geometry—”
“We already said geometry.”
“A Greek doesn’t have to sit there and spend hours memorizing everything.”
“Pythagoras and Euclid.”
“This is why the Germans and French don’t make good doctors.”
“Can I say something?”
“They say the Italians are the worst.”
“What about the Chinese?”
“Let me say something!” Kostakis rapped the counter with the palm of his hand, his wedding band clacking on the Formica. Everyone fell silent. “Why do you suppose the New Testament was written in Greek?” Everyone nodded solemnly. “Was it because Christ liked Greeks? It’s because Greek is the language suited to the mind of God. It’s the language closest to truth, to the divine. There was no other language the New Testament could have been written in. Alex. Alex, am I right?”
I glanced up. “I don’t know,
Kosta, you know more about these things than I do.”
“I only recount what I’ve heard. Tell me if I’m wrong.”

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Fotios Sarris was born in Montréal. He currently lectures in the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University. His work has appeared in Essays on Canadian Writing and Nineteenth-Century Literature.



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