The Greek word that can’t be translated

‘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.

By Stav Dimitropoulos
7 June 2017

In his second summer in the lonesome Greek village of Tolo on the east coast of the Peloponnese, German senior civil servant and writer Andreas Deffner committed a cultural blunder that led him to the celebrated concept of Greek philotimo.

“Good morning, how are you?’ Grandma Vangelió, owner of the pension where he was staying, warmly greeted him one day.

“So, so,” Deffner sleepily answered.

Next thing the German tourist knew, he was sweating over a bowl of delicious, steaming-hot chicken soup, the watchful eyes of Grandma Vangelió and her daughter Irini glued on him. When Irini started wildly gesticulating at her brother Pericles, who had just arrived, Deffner broke out in cold sweat. “What’ve I done?” he asked, warily.

“You said to Vangelió that you weren’t feeling well?” Pericles replied.

“I beg your pardon? I just said I was so, so.”

“If you answer ‘so, so’, locals think you’re sick and their sense of philotimo urges them to heal you, thus the chicken soup,” Pericles replied, roaring with laughter.

The guest sighed with relief. “This was my first experience with philotimo, and certainly not the last,” Deffner, who later wrote a book on the topic, told me.

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.

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