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 where they are established. 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, as many sorority sisters and fraternity brothers become life-long friends, as well as colleagues in their professional fields.
Why the ‘Greek’ in “Greek life?”
Referring to fraternities and sororities as “Greek life” became a thing when students initially convened 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 solely 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.
Furthermore, founders were keen 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, attaining membership was likened 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 nineteenth century, Greek life retained some elements of secret societies while leaning into the social and academic aspects of its presence on campus in the 1800s.
Students found the use of the Greek alphabet to be a signifier of academic integrity, a rich basis on which to build the culture of fraternities and sororities. Various groups modeled after the chapter at the College of William and Mary were established, 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 colleges and universities in the United States and has had no lack in prestigious members. Phi Beta Kappa alone has inducted seventeen U.S. Presidents, forty 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.