Have you ever wondered why American college fraternities and sororities are referred to as “Greek life”? Why are they commonly named after the Greek alphabet?
“Greek life” is a term for different exclusive societies–fraternities for men, sororities for women– that have an association with the university or college they are founded at. Some fraternities and sororities have chapters across different campuses. These groups are notorious for their exclusivity and high bar of entry, but if one is able to become a member, these challenges can pay off big time: many sorority sisters and fraternity brothers become life long friends as well as colleagues in their professional fields.
Why the ‘Greek’ in “Greek life”?
Describing fraternities and sororities as “Greek life” can be traced all the way back to their origin. Students initially came together in 1775 to establish the first fraternity at the College of William and Mary. They wanted a way to distinguish themselves from other clubs that had a reputation only for partying, and felt that using the Greek alphabet would associate them with Greece’s rich cultural history of intellectual innovation. Thus Phi Beta Kappa was born.
Another motivation for using the Greek alphabet was to create an air of secrecy around the club. The founding members surmised that the Greek name would only be decipherable to students in the know who had the intellectual savvy to recognize the language. In the early days of fraternities, membership in one was consummate to being a member of a secret society, and using the Greek alphabet was a form of encryption. Although Greek life has become a more accessible and publicly visible phenomenon, chapters still retain this quality of exclusivity and secrecy–specifically around obtaining membership–to this day.
Phi Beta Kappa expanded to the Harvard and Yale campuses by 1779. By the 19th century, Greek life retained some elements of secret societies while leaning into the social and academic aspects of its presence on campus in the 1800’s. Students found the use of the Greek alphabet as a signifier of academic integrity to be a rich basis on which to build the culture of fraternities and sororities. Different groups modeled after the chapter at the College of William and Mary began to open up, combining and recombining different letters and numbers from the Greek alphabet to distinguish themselves from the original Phi Beta Kappa while simultaneously aligning themselves with the culture.
Greek life has become a staple of American colleges and universities and has had no lack in prestigious members. Phi Beta Kappa alone has inducted 17 U.S. Presidents, 40 Supreme Court Justices, and 136 Nobel Laureates into its fraternity, including former president Barack Obama, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor, and current secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen.