Greek letters tell an interesting story

Columnist

Is it the images of toga parties, a fondness for ionic columns (ionic columns are the ones that are fluted, or ribbed, for your pleasure) or a general Grecian disposition that sculpts fraternity brothers and sorority sisters in the image of classical Greece?

Actually, it’s as simple as the letters they use to identify themselves. The letters are drawn from the Greek alphabet; hence they identify “Greeks.” 

In 1776, at The College of William and Mary, a student named John Heath had tried and failed to be admitted to two existing societies that used Latin letters to identify themselves: the F.H.C. Society (or Flat Hat Club) and the P.D.A. Society (Please Don’t Ask).

Since Heath had apparently never seen “Animal House,” he declared that both societies “had lost all reputation for letters, and [were] noted only for the dissipation and conviviality of [their] members,” according to “Phi Beta Kappa as a Secret Study.”

In other words, the Latin letter societies were full of wasted people looking for a good time. 

Clearly, it was time to go Greek. Heath established Phi Beta Kappa, named for the Greek motto, “Philosophia Biou Kybernētēs” or “Love of learning is the guide of life.” Heath chose Greek letters because he was a Greek scholar.

From that point forward, other Greek societies were established. Sororities were formed as early as 1851, as women began to establish a significant presence in higher education. 1906 saw the formation of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American fraternity, which includes notable alumni such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. 

The significance of the letters may be shrouded in myth or secrecy, but the fact that they are Greek letters is plain to see. Thus, the members of these respected college societies continue to be known as Greeks to this day.