Word of the Day: Girofar

Today I happened to be passing by Piata Unirii here in beautiful but frozen Unicorn City and I briefly stopped and watched the circa 50 protesters do their thing, surrounded on all sides by bored but ever vigilant security officers. My brain working the inexplicable way it does, all of this got me to thinking about one of the rare compound words in Romanian that is entirely of Greek origin.

The word in question is girofar (jeer-oh-far), which the DEX pithily describes as a “a rotating, flashing light mounted on the roof of a vehicle”. In English there is no “pure” translation but it’s easy enough to parse out what this means – the lights on any emergency vehicle (fire, ambulance, police) that rotate are the girofaruri.

What makes all this interesting (at least to me) is that the word far in Romanian, which by itself means “lighthouse”, is taken directly from the Greek. The Pharos of Alexandria was one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Just like the word “phone”, the “ph” is just modern English orthography for what is clearly an “f” sound – hence you can see Romanian “far” and Greek “pharos” are clearly linked.

Furthermore, if you’re a soccer (football) fan, you might know that the greatest Romanian player of all time, Gheorghe Hagi used to play for Farul Constanta, or the Constanta “Lighthouse” team. Constanta being a port city, it’s easy to see where they got the name for their team.

But what about the “giro” part of girofar? Probably the first word that would come to mind to a modern English speaker is “gyroscope”, which is clearly something that rotates. Indeed the Greek root gyros means to “turn around in a circle” or “spin in a circle”. Therefore you can easily piece together that Romanian girofar literally means “lighthouse that spins in a circle”, a pretty apt description using archaic Greek words to describe something quite modern.

For bonus points, the oldest English word derived from Greek “gyros” however is the word gyre, which might help render slightly more comprehensible a uniquely memorable poem:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.