Stupid Question ™
March 1, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: Why are fraternities and sororities considered Greek?
—SB & CB
A: Pretty much the only thing Greek about fraternities is their names, which usually consist of two or three ancient Greek letters. They owe much more to the rites of Freemasonry than they do to the land of Homer.
College fraternities are American inventions that have their origins in literary and debate clubs formed on campuses in the early 1700s. Back then, colleges were rigid places that taught only religion and the classics.
These clubs let students discuss novel, contemporary themes and subjects with unprecedented freedom of speech, and often from a humanistic angle.
Steeped in Greco-Roman studies, the students often gave their clubs names inspired by classical heroes or ideals: the Ciceronian Society, for example. Many of the clubs were secret, because colleges often viewed them as threats to academic power.
Around 1750, an especially secret club appeared on the campus of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. It was known as F.H.C., an abbreviation of a now-forgotten Latin phrase. Thomas Jefferson was a member; he noted the group accumulated a fine library, but mostly just drank at the local tavern and had many a “Debauch.”
In 1773, a similar group known as P.D.A. (another Latin abbreviation) sprang up, only to quickly degrade into a drinking club as well. Intrigued by these failures, student John Heath in 1776 founded a similar but more serious group—one that still exists today in the form of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
Heath gave his club the Latin name Societas Philosophiae (“Philosophical Society”) and the Greek motto, “Love of Wisdom the Guide of Life.” To keep it secret in public discussions, members called it either “S.P.” (the initials of the name) or “Phi Beta Kappa” (the initials of the Greek motto). Eventually even the members forgot the group’s real name and took to calling it Phi Beta Kappa.
All fraternities since have followed this method of naming their clubs (usually inventing Greek mottos to back it up); they became known as “Greek-letter” groups. Or today, just “Greek” organizations.
Phi Beta Kappa also established the fraternity practices of secret rituals, pledge pins and the chapter system of expanding to other colleges—all borrowed directly from Masonic traditions. (Many members of Phi Beta Kappa were Masons.)
Phi Beta Kappa held serious debates on such topics as religious liberty, slavery and democracy. But by the early 1800s, it was becoming both vilified by anti-Masonic politicians (which eventually led to the group becoming a non-secret honor society) and simply outdated.
In 1826-27, three fraternities formed at New York’s Union College.
Kappa Alpha, Sigma Phi and Delta Phi, known as the “Union Triad,” became the models for the modern fraternity system: secretive and with Greek-letter names, but more social than scholarly. Such fraternities spread quickly and soon supplanted the old literary societies.