Three Classical Words Every Kid Should Know

Jason Pedicone |

Why studying Latin and ancient Greek will help your kids succeed at school and life.


Are you worried about your child reading well? You should be!

The literacy crisis in the US has only gotten worse after Covid. And let’s face it, your kids’ smartphone addiction isn’t to Dickens novels on the Kindle app. More likely, it’s one of the social media apps shown to increase anxiety and depression and decrease attention spans.

For parents looking for a way to get their kids more interested in reading, introducing them to languages of the ancient Greeks and Romans may hold the key.

Together, Latin and ancient Greek account for more than 80% of English words. And because of the fascinating history of English, they’re the source of almost all the more complicated words students need to learn for general literacy, and to understand the lingo of science and technology. This is because the founders of those disciplines were all steeped in a traditional educational system that was based in training in the classics. Want proof? Here are three important areas where Latin and Greek words and derivatives in everyday English demonstrate the power of Latin and Greek to supercharge your child’s learning.

1. Medicine

Cancer means "crab" in Latin.

The word “medicine” derives from the Latin word medeor, “to heal” and every scientific name for a medical condition comes from Latin and Greek. Cancer is the Latin word for crab, named for the way that veins around tumors look like crabs. The Greek word for crab is καρκίνος karkinos, which gives us “carcinoma”. Tumor is also Latin for “swelling,” while in Greek it’s ὄγκος onkos, as in “oncology.” Pretty much every part of the body has a Greek or Latin name that doctors use to talk about our “symptoms” (from Greek σύμπτωματα symptomata “misfortunes”) with language that often sounds way scarier than it is. Got a bad case of rhinorrhea and wondering how long you have left? You’ll be fine, it’s just a runny nose! (Greek ῥίς rhis, “nose” and ῥέο rheo “to run or flow”).

2. Technology

Bits, short for “binary digits” are the zeros and ones that make up all software.

Many words in tech ultimately have Latin and Greek origins. “Byte,” the word for the smallest unit of computing data, is an alternate spelling of “bit”, which is an abbreviation of “binary digit.” Binary comes from Latin binus, meaning two (as in 0 or 1, the two options which all computer code consists of) and “digit” derives from digitus, which is Latin for “finger,” our original counting tool. All those prefixes that tell us how big our bytes are also come from Latin and Greek. “Kilobyte” comes from Greek χἰλο- kilo- meaning “one thousand.” Megabyte comes from Greek μέγα mega meaning “big” for 1,000,000 bytes. And Gigabyte comes from Greek γίγας gigas “giant” or 1,000,000,000 bytes. The word “technology” itself, like all the other “-ologies,” is also Greek. Τέχνη techne in Greek means “tool” and -ology derives from λὀγος, which in this context means “study.” See, all these new technologies are just helpful tools. Nothing to worry about.

3. Politics

Democrats are Greek and Republicans are Latin, at least in terms of etymology!

Ah democracy, our sacred system of governance. Working great these days, isn’t it? Anyway, the word “democracy” was invented by the ancient Greeks, and like it, most of the words describing our politics derive from these ancient languages. “Democracy” is giving κράτος kratos “power” to the δῆμος demos, the “people.” The Greek philosopher Plato, the original political theorist, also identified other forms of government like “monarchy,” from Greek μόνος monos “one” and ἀρχή arche “rule,” as well as “aristocracy,” giving power to the “best,” from Greek ἄριστος aristos. There is also “tyranny,” from Greek τύραννος tyrannos, “absolute ruler.”

The language of American government is also rife with Greek and Latin terms. We have a “bicameral” system of government, which comes from the Latin words bis, meaning “two” and camera meaning “room,” in reference to the two separate chambers where the Senate and House of Representatives meet. “Senate” itself derives from the Latin word for “old man,” senex. So if our politicians are at risk of senility (from Latin senilis, “of or relating to an old man”), at least they’re in keeping with tradition! The very word “politics” itself comes from the ancient Greek word πόλις polis, which means “city,” but which ultimately derives from the word πόλυ poly, meaning “many.” As in a city is a place where many different people with different ideas live together. Can’t we all just get along? Learning Latin and Greek will help!

Here's how your kids can start studying the classics.

If I’ve convinced you that studying the classics will benefit your child’s learning, consider introducing Latin and Ancient Greek into their academic diet. The Paideia Institute’s self-paced online curricula make it easy to study the classics on your own at home. Our Elementa curriculum is for children as young as elementary school, while our more advanced curricula, like Living Latin, can take you all the way to reading original ancient texts yourself.


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Jason Pedicone

Jason Pedicone is the president of the Paideia Institute.


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