BBC: The “mystery” of the Greek word philotimo

8 June 2017
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There is a Chinese proverb that says a picture is worth a thousand words. But what if you come across a word that can’t be translated into other languages. The Greek word “Philotimo” has often been rendered as “Love of honour” in the English language, but this interpretation fails to encapsulate the true meaning of the word. BBC’s travel writer Stav Dimitropoulos spoke to Vassilios P. Vertoudakis, lecturer in Ancient Greek philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in an attempt to best understand its origins and explain its meaning. From BBC:

The exact meaning of philotimo is hotly debated, given that the word belongs to the pantheon of Greek lexical items that defy easy explanation. ‘Love of honour’, its official translation, is a utilitarian yet insufficient attempt to convey the constellation of virtues squeezed into the word’s four syllables. When I asked various Greeks about their own perception of philotimo, I received very different responses.
“Doing the right thing,” Pinelopi Kalafati, a doctor, told me. “Loving and honouring God and your society,” said priest Nikolas Papanikolaou. “Striving for perfection,” answered actor Kostis Thomopoulos. “Stepping out from your comfort zone to help someone in need,” suggested Tatiana Papadopoulou, a volunteer in Malakasa detention camp for refugees.

“The mythology that accompanies this elusive concept is without precedent. Indeed, the word cannot be translated precisely to any other language,“ said Vassilios P Vertoudakis, lecturer in Ancient Greek philology at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. “All the same, philotimo has become one of the building blocks of the Greek disposition because of the unique standing of Greece in relation to what we call the West.”
He explained that philotimo comes from the Ancient Greek word philotimia (φιλοτιμία), of which the first attested written reference dates to the dawn of the Greek classical period (6th and 7th Centuries BC) in the writings of lyric poet Pindar. For Pindar and other early writers, the word meant love of honour or distinction, or ambition, but often in a negative way. In mythology, for example, Achilles’ philotimo was wounded when King Agamemnon took away Queen Briseis, his prize for bravery on the battlefield.
It was only after the consolidation of democracy in classical Athens around the 4th and 5th Centuries BC, when competition was replaced by co-operation, that the word gained a more positive connotation.

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