Admittedly, it’s been a few days since my last entry in the #EnglishIsAllGreekToMe twitter tag but, as most of you know, this is because I was away on Easter holidays. Now that I’m back, I hope that this will be a more punctual thing.
We had left our study of the Greek rooted English words with just two members: logos and pathos. Today, we will study another word that together with the previous two, they form what is known as “the triangle of rhetoric”.
“Ethos” comes from the Greek language as is. It is the vocal print of the word “ήθος“. In the English language, it first appeared in the year 1851. The word is being used in both British and American English in more or less the same way. In British English, it is “the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations”, while in American English it is “the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution”.
One could argue that the American English use of the word comes closer to the original meaning of the Greek word “ήθος”. In Greek, the word signifies the sum of virtues, the morality of whatever it is used to describe, be it a person, community, era, etc.
If one goes to dig deeper in the first meaning of the word “ήθος” in Greek, one will find that it used to mean the “common place”. One could translate that as both “habit” and “habitat”.
Arguably, the most common use for the word “ethos” in the English language is as part of the terms “ethical“/”unethical”. If one navigates to “ethical”, the Latin equivalent of the Greek word will better illustrate both the meaning of the word as well as the formation of the English language as a whole, building on older languages.