Metropolitan words from the city

My eleven year old son asked me (a few years ago) what metropolitan meant when we took the train into Sydney on the weekend. I knew that polis is the old Greek word for the people of a city or the city. However, I was unsure what metro was, so after I got home, I looked it up. It comes from the Greek meter for mother (I suppose I should have known that).

In the ancient Greek world the fundamental unit of Government was the city, not a nation or a state. Greek cities were managed by early forms of democracy, where the people of the cities controlled their administration. The people of the city were thus the polis. This forms the basis of many of our societies concepts: politics, the process of managing the Government of the people; policy, the principles of managing a state; and the police, the agents that enforce the laws of the state.

A metropolis is a large city. Metropolitan is the adjective form of metropolis. So metropolitan refers to those things associated with large cities such as culture, sophistication, fashionable taste, etcetera. Cosmopolitan (from Greek kosmopolites from kosmos for world and polites for citizen) is the next step up and means belonging to the world, that is, free from local, provincial or national attachment or bias.

In English the concept of metropolitan came from the Christian church. The bishops of the largest cities were more senior to the bishops of smaller cities and had oversight of them. The position of Metropolitan is now usually called an archbishop in most churches.

The Metro, used for underground railways comes from Paris where its underground railway was abbreviated from Chemin de Fer Métropolitain, the Metropolitan Railway (in French, railroad, chemin de fer, literally means iron road).

Polis (or poli) for a city is used in a lot of words from English and other languages:

  • Tripolis (in Libya) was the name of a Phoenician colony consisting of Oea (modern Tripoli), Leptis Magna, and Sabratha;
  • Persepolis, the ancient capital of Persia was literally the city of the Persians;
  • Constantinople (now Istanbul) was Constantine’s city, Constantine being the first Caesar to convert to Christianity;
  • Naples, is Napoli in Italian, which comes from the Greek Neapolis, for new city and those that live there are Neopolitans;
  • Megapolis is a great city from Greek mega meaning great;
  • Necropolis is a large cemetery and is literally city of the dead, from necro for dead; and
  • Acropolis, the citadel in Athens where the Parthenon stands, is high city from akros meaning high.

The United States adopted the form for some of their state capitals: Minneapolis for the capital of Minnesota; Indianapolis for the capital of Indiana; and Annapolis, capital of Maryland called after Queen Anne of Great Britain.