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The ECB’s High-Wire Act

How did the ancient Greeks have the foresight to anticipate the complexity of Europe’s current monetary system?

February 15, 2000

How did the ancient Greeks have the foresight to anticipate the complexity of Europe's current monetary system?

The European Community is known around the world for its almost obsessive need to translate every utterance, report, press release, or statistic into any and all of its members’ languages. In fact, about one-third of the EC’s staff of 16,000 are involved in this massive linguistic feat.

Walking into the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, then, it was not surprising to see the name of the institution reproduced in all of the EC languages on the walls of the lobby. What was surprising was the Greek translation.

The Greek words for “European” and “central” — respectively “evropaios” and “kentrikos” — are, even to someone with no knowledge of the language, clearly recognizable. But what is completely different — and, as it turns out, so visionary — is the word for “bank.” As evidenced in the lobby of the ECB, a “bank” in Greek is a “trapeza.”

No language could possibly come up with a more fitting term. Suggestive of the artistic abilities and risk-defying temperament needed to run a modern financial institution, it is somehow more appropriate to speak of a “trapeze” than a plain and stodgy “bank.”

So even though the Greeks could not get their economy into shape to be among the first countries to adopt the euro, they have already made a significant contribution to the ECB. Having had the foresight to anticipate the complexity of today's financial markets, their name for the institution is a constant reminder that, if nothing else, the euro is a high-wire requiring great artistry.