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When a metaphor is a bit mundane

If you are on holiday in Greece you might recognise some words... But they do not always mean what you might think. Photo: Chris Ridley / Getty - Credit: Getty Images

We have borrowed plenty of words from Greek – but they haven’t always kept quite the same meaning, says PETER TRUDGILL

If you are on holiday in Greece or Cyprus, you may be unlucky enough to come across a sign hanging on the door of your hotel lift saying Ektós liturgías.

Ektós is not necessarily a totally unfamiliar form to all English speakers since it occurs in a number of technical words, like ectoparasite, ‘a parasite like a flea living outside its host’; ectothermic, referring to animals which obtain their heat from external sources such as by basking in the sun; and the infamous ectoplasm, ‘a supernatural viscous substance exuded by a spiritual medium during a trance’.

In Greek, on the other hand, ektós is a perfectly normal, everyday word which simply means ‘outside, without, except’.

Liturgia looks even more familiar. Liturgy, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, signifies ‘a form of public worship, especially in the Christian Church; a collection of formularies for the conduct of divine service’. For us, it is a specifically religious word referring to a church service. The term first appeared in English in the 16th century as a loan from Greek via French.

But in Modern Greek, liturgía is an everyday word meaning any kind of service. As in English, it can refer to a religious service. But it can just as well refer to the functioning, operation, running or working of more or less anything.

So this Greek-origin word with a rather specific meaning in English has a much more general meaning in Modern Greek itself. The sad fact is that the sign on the lift saying Ektós liturgías just means ‘out of service’ – you’re going to have to walk up the stairs.

The same process has happened the other way round. In English, service can mean any number of different things. We have the health service, the police service, the probation service, social services and armed services. You can be involved in domestic service, military service, or voluntary service. We might eat and drink off a dinner service or a tea service. Institutions which have borrowed money may have to service a debt. You can perform a service for someone. And engineers service boilers – and even lifts.

But our word service has been borrowed into Greek as sérvis, and like liturgy in English, it has a much more limited range of meanings there. As in English, sérvis can be used in connection with having your car or your air-conditioning checked, or informally with reference to service in a restaurant or hotel – some Greek restaurants are selph-sérvis. But that’s about it.

A similar example of an everyday Greek word having a more restricted and erudite meaning in English can be seen any day of the week along Greek roads, where you are bound to come across lorries with the word metaphorés written on the side, often as part of the phrase Metaphorés-Metakomísis.

A metaphor in English is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is transferred to an entity which, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, is ‘different from but analogous to’ what it is literally applicable to – as when Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”; or, more prosaically, when we talk of the “mouth” of a river or the “foot” of a hill.

Metaphor was also first borrowed from Greek into English in the 16th century. It comes from Ancient Greek meta, ‘across’, and phora, ‘carrying’. In English we use the word – there’s no other way of saying this! – metaphorically, to indicate a transfer of meaning from one entity to another. In Modern Greek it can be used in this way, too. But it is also much more frequently used, entirely literally, to refer to the transfer of anything or anybody from one place to another. Metaphorés-Metakomísis means ‘Transport-Removals’: metaphorá, plural metaphorés, is most often used to mean simply ‘transport, haulage’.