Opoudjis (Nick Nicholas) at the Hellenic Steakhouse has been doing a series of posts on the origin and development of the colloquial Greek phrase αμέτι μουχαμέτι [ameti mukhameti], expressing unreasonable insistence or pigheadedness (το έβαλε αμέτι μουχαμέτι να κάνει τον γιο του δικηγόρο, ‘he set out, ameti mouhameti, to make his son a lawyer’), which, it turns out, comes from Ottoman Turkish. Here’s a brief summary:

In Turkish there is an expression ümmet-i Muhammed, “nation of Muhammad”, with which Muslims refer to the sum of their coreligionists. During Ottoman rule, it was also used as a warcry, which was interpreted by Greeks as an oath/commitment to attain victory. So it passed into Greek with the sense “at any sacrifice”, as αμέτι μουχαμέτι—possibly through the influence of a folk etymology from the name Ahmed or the oath Μα το Μουχαμέτη “By Muhammad!”

But, as always, the fun is in the details. The laying out of evidence (taken, as Nick would want me to point out, from Vasilis Orfanos at Nikos Sarantakos’ blog) and the careful analysis of exactly how the change must have occurred are well worth your attention even if you have no particular interest in Greek. An interesting sidelight: “understanding Turkish really does get in the way of seeing how the meaning change happened.” The discussion extends over several posts, beginning with Metonymy and Metaphor in Language Change (“If you’re trying to date linguistic change, you have a problem. Because the initial reanalysis happens in people’s heads, you can’t see it in textual evidence”) and continuing in αμέτι μουχαμέτι, “Come Hell or High Water” (laying out the problem and the evidence), αμέτι μουχαμέτι: Syntax (“I will claim that the syntax of this expression, like that of so many others, changed through an iteration of reanalysis and extension”), and αμέτι μουχαμέτι: Semantics (“The context is key to how the connotations took root; context, after all, is where connotations come from”). Warning: I have spent a goodly chunk of the morning reading all that instead of doing a rush editing job. This stuff is addictive.


  1. Very neat connection. Though, hat, I implore you to reword your gloss a little bit; before I went through word-by-word on the Greek sample sentence, I thought that you were trying to say that the Turkish phrase had been reanalyzed in Greek such that the phrase for being particularly pigheaded is, ‘To make one’s son a lawyer’.

  2. I’m trying, pathetically, to teach myself Homeric Greek, and what I want to know is: how many past tenses does a language need?? Wouldn’t the ancient Greeks have been better off using their time inventing sulfa drugs or something?

  3. John Emerson says:

    Japanese “kamikaze” or “banzai” have slightly similar functions in English.

  4. GeorgeW says:

    You can take the etymology back one more step. The Turkish phrase is from Arabic (with a little phonological modification).

  5. GeorgeW: yes indeed, Turkish ümmet is just Arabic Ummah.
    Shelley: if it’s any consolation, the First Aorist and Second Aorist are not semantically distinct as such; they’re Ablaut vs Suffix to express the same thing, just as English now has to deal with weak and strong verbs.
    (And the late resurgence of second aorists in Koine is comparable to the resurgence of strong verbs in contemporary American English.)
    Another consolation, though it’s post-Homeric: you know that extraordinarily subtle distinction between middle and passive aorist? It’s doubtful even the Classical Greeks understood the distinction. The passive was a new-fangled suffix, that came out of a Homeric intransitive (I think); so it *tended* to more passive than reflexive meanings. But there was never a clear distinction between the two.
    Thanks as always for the linklove, L. Hat!

  6. Off topic – Hat, I was wondering if you’ve read Elif Batuman’s article on Turkish soccer in the last New Yorker. It was a very interesting piece – she discusses the history of Turkish football, the cultural and political divisions between the top Istanbul teams, and even the way that football chants have incorporated motifs from Ottoman love poetry. However, it’s a little frustrating if you’re interested in language. She makes a number of references to the creatively obscene language and chants of Besiktas fans, but provides not a single example.

  7. I’ve just gotten to that point in the magazine, and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the warning about the linguistic lacuna!

  8. Trond Engen says:

    It’s a thrill, but Nick’s writing so fast I haven’t time to keep up. I’m still not halfway through the march 7 post.

  9. C’mon, Nick. Four or five novel strong verbs hardly counts as a resurgence, and what about twug, the past tense of twig ‘comprehend’ (which And Rosta told me about)?

  10. John: any use of strong verbs which isn’t in my native dialect is a massive resurgence. 🙂
    I don’t remember how many second aorists did turn up again in Koine, though it’s probably more than four or five. But yeah, it is worthwhile for me to try and count how many verbs did this in the Koine, how many have done the equivalent in US English, and whether the phenomena are truly comparable. There’s every chance dove in the US is a dialect survival from corners of England, after all.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    yes indeed, Turkish ümmet is just Arabic Ummah.

    And the -i is Persian, right?

  12. Right.

Speak Your Mind