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5.4: §121. Interesting Words

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    8461
  • Table 19.1 contains the Greek derivative neologism (νεος, “new” + λογος, “word” + -ισμος, noun-forming suffix), a newly coined word or expression. Conservative word-lovers are usually leery of neologisms, which occur often in trendy bureaucratic usage—forms like privatize and priorize, for example. In contrast, adventurous English stylists are delighted to see new words added to the language, provided that they enrich the possibilities for communication (and that is an important proviso). Sometimes neologisms are deliberately facetious, like the delicious coinage affluenza (“an affliction brought on by suddenly having too much money”). If you want to keep abreast of new developments, you’ll find a whole book on the subject—Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English.

    A close relative of acronym (§118) is acrostic (ἀκρος, “top” + στιχος, “line”), a poem or other composition in which the first letters of each line, when read vertically, form an independent word. There have been times in literary history when convoluted ingenuity of this sort—crossword puzzle skills, applied to poetry—have been highly treasured.

    There are other common Greek adjectives with which you should have a nodding acquaintance. Close in meaning to ἑτερος (“other”) is ἀλλος (“another”). It is found in the linguistic term allophone, which is a nondistinctive variant of a phoneme (e.g., the English sounds [ph] and [p] in pin and spin). In Quebec, the word allophone (“another voice”) has a very different meaning: it is applied to those whose first language is neither French (francophone) nor English (anglophone). A Greek synonym for ραλαιος (“old”) is ἀρχαιος (“ancient”); thus the kindred disciplines of palaeontology (palae-ont-o-logy, “the study of old existing things”[1]) and archaeology (archae-o-logy, “the study of ancient things”). Palaeozoic (US Paleozoic, “pertaining to old life”) and Mesozoic (< μεσος, “middle”) are two geologic eras. That adjective meaning “middle” occurs in Mesopotamia, “the land in the middle of the rivers” (Tigris and Euphrates). The word sophomore combines two Greek adjectives that are opposite in meaning: σοφος (“wise”) and μωρος (“foolish,” “dull”). A paradoxical and contradictory expression like “wise-foolish” or “bittersweet” may be called an oxymoron (ὀξυς, “sharp” + μωρος (“dull”). Perhaps you have a favourite unintentional oxymoron, like “military intelligence” or “jumbo shrimp.”

    The possibility of etymological confusion is acute in derivatives of κενος (“empty”), κοινος (“common”[2]), and καινος (“new” or “recent”)—all of which may appear in English as cen-. In North American dictionaries, you will find the spellings cenotaph (“empty tomb”), cenobite (“one who lives a common life”—a type of monastic regimen), and Cenozoic (“pertaining to new life”—the most recent geologic era). In British practice, as reflected in the OxfordEnglishDictionary, the etymological distinctions are made clearer by the historically accurate and distinctive spellings cenotaph, coenobite, and Caenozoic.

    If you want a challenging experience in etymology, consult a geological time scale in any encyclopedia. You will learn, for example, that the Cenozoic era—the last 65 million years on earth—is divided into seven epochs: Holocene (“whole new”), Pleistocene (“most new”), Pliocene (“more new”), Miocene (“less new”), Oligocene (“little new”), Eocene (“dawn new”[3]), and Paleocene (“old new”). The last is an excellent oxymoron.


    1. The element -ont- is derived from οντα (“existing things”), the present participle of the Greek verb that means “to be.” ↵
    2. The “common” Greek dialect of late antiquity—the language of the Greek New Testament—is known as the κοινη (koinē), a feminine adjective form. ↵
    3. Greek “dawn” is ἠως; the prehistoric ancestor of all horses was the eohippus (“dawn horse”). ↵
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