While Greek life, including social, service, and other types of fraternities and sororities, is understood to be something that is present on most college campuses in some form or another, why exactly is it “Greek” to begin with? Why not Arabic, or Thai, or American?
First, we need to look at the history of similar organizations. After all, organizations focused on scholarship, rhetoric, and ethical conduct started long before the inception of Greek life as we know it today. By 1770, Latin Societies existed at nearly all schools as competing organizations on campus. The literary exercises of these societies consisted of debates, political, social, or religious discussion, and composing and delivering original poems, essays, and fiction. These Latin societies are a big part of the development of modern Greek life due to the fact that early fraternities were considered private versions of the open forums of Latin societies.
The Phi Beta Kappa Society at the College of William and Mary was the first fraternal organization in the United States, founded December 5, 1776 by John Heath. Heath started his Greek society in protest of being rejected from several of these Latin letter societies, with the intention of starting an organization with “friendship at its basis and benevolence and literature at its pillars”. This society established the precedent of using Greek letters based on the initials of a secret Greek motto. Phi Beta Kappa is named for its motto: “φιλοσοφια βιου κυβερνητης” (philosophia biou kybernētēs), meaning “philosophy is the helmsman of life”.