Phi-Kappa-What? Everywhere on campus you’ll see letters from the Greek alphabet pasted on sweatshirts, tote bags, jackets, big wooden blocks and the ever-popular deep v-neck American Apparel tees. If you’re not in a fraternity or sorority, you’re probably wondering where these letters come from and what the importance of wearing them on campus is.
The history of using Greek letters for academic and social societies goes back to the late 18th century — a time without Facebook or Twitter. Colleges at this time had single-sex, social and academic organizations to help students get involved and connected within the school and to help set up connections outside of school. The oldest of these societies is Phi Beta Kappa, which was the first collegiate organization to adopt a name with Greek letters.
You’re probably wondering why the Greek letters — why not Chinese symbols or some random made up fraternal alphabet? As cool as it would be to have an alphabet just for fraternities and sororities, Greek ended up working best because the letters, in relation to Latin, represent a motto or slogan of beliefs. For Phi Beta Kappa, the letters ΦΒΚ represent the initial letters of its motto, “Philosophia biou kubernetes,” which translates into “Love of learning is the guide of life.”
Sororities and fraternities today are commonly known as Greek organizations and their members as “Greeks,” because of the use of Greek letters to distinguish themselves. It is not a reflection of the ancestry of the individual members. The Greek letters were actually chosen for a variety of reasons. They were a tribute to the first true democracies in the Western World and many of the organizations used Greek (and sometimes Latin) words for their secret and public mottoes. Greek letters were also used because many of the organizations grew from literary societies that were dedicated to the discussion of classical literature as was popular among the educated classes of the time. This term is further solidified today by the use of Greek architectural elements including the pediments and columns which commonly adorn fraternity and sorority houses.
To the Greeks at UC Irvine, these letters are more than just mottos and abbreviations for belief — they are indicators, uniforms, and representations of themselves within a larger community.
“Wearing my particular sorority letters brings me pride, comfort and a feeling of accomplishment. These letters not only signify the bond I have between my sisters, but they serve as a sense of security when I feel lost and out of my comfort zone. The letters that each one of us takes so much pride in are uniquely different to each chapter and, more importantly, are important to each individual. This individualism under one pair of letters is why I am so honored to wear mine,” said fourth-year,Jenna Gratz, president of Alpha Chi Omega sorority.
“It shows pride in the people and organization you associate yourself with. Also, it’s just a good way to recruit because people see the qualities you have and they identify with those qualities. Then they may be interested in joining,” said Aaron Goldberg, a fourth-year Sigma Phi Epsilon brother.
Third-year Sigma Chi member, Arya Firoozmand said the letters represent a sense of pride.
“Well…it is the same reason why military badges are worn. They represent the work you put in to join this organization and the pride you have in upholding the principles in which your fraternity or sorority believes,” said Firoozmand.
To the Greeks at UC Irvine, representing their affiliated fraternity or sorority in the best light is something that is stressed not only within the individual houses, but also within the whole community. Many of the sorority houses even prohibit their girls from cursing or acting crudely while wearing their letters. They also stress to their girls that they are not to wear their letters while drinking, partying, smoking or engaging in other sorts of debauchery.
As fourth year Kappa Kappa Gamma member and vice president of communications for the Panhellenic Executive board Danielle Wong put it, “Letters are a way of representing your organization. It’s the best feeling of being able to wear them after learning of the importance in their meaning and history.”
So the next time you see a person wearing that same sweater with whatever letters on it in your lecture, understand that it’s more than just a fashion statement. The letters are worn with pride and they signify being part of a larger community that goes beyond UC Irvine to students nationwide. If anyone asks where you heard it, tell them you heard it on the Greek Vine.
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