‘Ethos’ – word of the day


Sir, — Fintan O’Toole (“Ethos is another word for arbitrary power”, Opinion & Analysis, May 2nd) is surely right that “language shapes our thoughts”, and he may well be right that in relation to the controversy over the National Maternity Hospital, “ethos is another word for arbitrary power”, but it is very odd to describe it as a Latin word. It appears in the earliest Greek literature, although at first to mean “an accustomed place”, before it developed the more familiar meaning of “custom”, “usage”, “character”, and appeared, along with “logos” (“reason”) and “pathos” (“emotion”) as one of Aristotle’s famous three modes of persuasion.

Unlike many Greek words, “ethos” scarcely made it into ancient Latin (where mores is probably the nearest equivalent) and then only as a word for “depicting character” (the playwright Terence was said to have been the best at doing this).

Even in modern Latin, I note in passing the tendency of popes and Vatican officials (in Latin versions of their various writings), when using the word “ethos”, to put it in inverted commas or italics, to indicate, presumably, that they regard it as a transliteration of a word foreign to Latin.

Strangely, the word “ethos”, to convey in English something like “the character or disposition of a community or group”, does not seem to have entered the English language in its own right until the 19th century, although the Greek original had given Old French and Middle English “ethics” (the study of morals, or moral philosophy) long before.

Fintan O’Toole ends his interesting piece wanting to discard in public services the Latin word “ethos” in favour of a perfectly good Greek one – “democracy”. But whatever the original meaning of these two important Greek words, they have now both become fully naturalised into the English language, where they can mean whatever we want them to mean – and “democracy” has certainly discarded much of what the Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries BC understood by it. – Yours, etc,


Regius Professor of Greek,

Department of Classics,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.