Category Archives: Words



Podoscaph: A canoe-shaped float attached to the foot, for walking on water

The word is formed by attaching the Greek prefix pod(o)- (derived from pous, meaning “foot”) to skaphos, “ship”.

In the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci toyed with podoscaph design—but, realizing that they wouldn’t be a particularly stable mode of locomotion, he sketched in a pair of ski-pole floats for his water-walker, too.

Leonardo podoscaph sketch
Leonardo’s podoscaphs

The little model built for the Macchine di Leonardo exhibition makes the design clearer, but no more convincingly stable.Model of Leonardo's podoscaphsThe Greek skaphos gave Auguste Piccard the name for his bathyscaphe (“deep ship”), the free-diving, deep-sea submersible that he designed in 1937, which he contrasted with Beebe and Barton’s earlier bathysphere (1934), which merely dangled from a cable.

And before moving on to other things, I can’t help but mention Jean Baptiste de La Chapelle‘s scaphander (“ship man”), a sort of cork jacket to aid locomotion in water. The illustration below, from his book Traité de la construction théorique et pratique du scaphandre, ou du bateau de l’homme (1775), speaks for itself. Though I’m not entirely sure what it’s saying.Illustration from La Chapelle's Scaphander (1775)

A thing that looks like a ship is scaphoid. There’s a gently curved scaphoid bone in your wrist. (It has a Roman cousin in your foot—the navicular bone, from the Latin navicula, “little ship”.)

A feature of extreme malnutrition is a scaphoid abdomen. When a starved person lies flat, the abdomen sags inwards. The v-shape of the ribs above is the prow of this abdominal ship, the curve of the pelvic bones below is the stern, and the inward-sagging abdomen between resembles the hollow inside of the ship’s hull.

Now, back to the other half of podoscaph:

That combining form pod(o)-, for “foot”, gives us podiatry “foot surgery”. Chiropody, a different name for the same job, is a “factitious designation”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s not clear whether the inventor of the term meant to combine cheiro-, “hand”, with pous, “foot” (thereby suggesting chiropody should involve both the hands and feet) or was using the Greek cheiropodes, “having chapped feet”. Neither quite makes sense, but neither is quite nonsense, either.

There are a huge number of foot-related words ending either -pod (Greek) or -ped (Latin), which are hardly worth discussing individually. But it’s worth mentioning octopus (“eight foot”) and platypus (“flat foot”), which are both derived from Greek pous, “foot”. That -us at the end is a trap for the unwary, luring us into trying out a Latin plural form, after the fashion of cacti, fungi, nuclei and hippopotami—but “octopi” and “platypi” are just plain wrong. If you want a Classical plural, it needs to be Greek: octopodes (ɒkˈtəʊpədiːz) and platypodes (plæˈtɪpədiːz) are what’s required— each with four syllables, emphasis on the second syllable. Try it, by all means. But people will look at you strangely. There’s nothing wrong with forming standard English plurals instead: octopuses and platypuses.

The Greek -podes plural is familiar from antipodes, “opposite feet”—people on the opposite side of the world have their feet pointing towards us. But note that antipodes is singular: each location on the globe has only one antipodes, all to itself. It’s tempting to work backwards from octopus and platypus to come up with a truly singular antipodal form: “antipus”. (Well, I find it tempting.) But that would imply that there was only one person in the opposite side of the world from you, and that they had only one foot.

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Hybrid Words

Television? The word is half Greek, half Latin. No good can come of it.

C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian

Hybrid formations are words made up of elements derived from different languages. Some people can get very annoyed about this, as did C.P. Scott, above, back in the early days of television. Scott was objecting to the fact that the new word television had been formed from the Greek root tele-, meaning “far off”, attached to the familiar word vision, which is of Latin origin. It had presumably been created by analogy with telegraph and telephone; but both those words are Greek from start to finish, formed from graphe, “writing”, and phone, “voice”.

The trouble with getting annoyed about hybrid words is that they’re everywhere. If you clap an Old English suffix like -ness on to a Latin import like genuine, you have a hybrid; if you add an imported suffix like -able on to an Old English stem like read, you have a hybrid. It gets rather difficult to use English if we disallow all combinations of this sort.

But the ire of the self-styled purists is generally reserved for recently formed words—their newness and unfamiliarity seems somehow toDictionary Of Modern English Usage make their hybrid nature more objectionable. H.W. Fowler could be relied upon to express weary contempt for a lot of common English usage, and hybrids were not exempt. In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) he made a list of words “of which all readers will condemn some, & some all”. The list included words that are now commonplace, such as amoral, bureaucracy, coastal, colouration, pacifist and speedometer. It also contained a selection that are now pretty much extinct: amusive, backwardation, dandiacal and funniment.

So it seems that there must be other factors that determine whether a word survives and flourishes, or withers and dies. As Robert Burchfield noted in the revised third edition of Modern English Usage: “… a word will settle in if there’s a need for it and will disappear if there is not … amoral, bureaucracy, and the other mixed-blood formations persist, and the language has suffered only invisible dents.”

Hybrid words are sometimes referred to as heteroradicals, from Greek heteros, “different”, and Latin radix, “root”.  I’m sure I can’t be the only one who derives an utterly disproportionate amount of satisfaction from the idea that heteroradical is a heteroradical.

Unfortunately, heteroradical is also used to designate a completely different class of words, a subdivision of the homonyms.

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation and spelling, but different meanings: for example, the address that you live at, and the address that you make to an audience. Heteroradicals are the subclass of homonyms that also differ in etymology (that is, they’re derived from different roots): for example, the chain mail in a suit of armour and the mail that is delivered to your letter-box. So for the kind of words we’re discussing here, the term hybrid turns out to be more commonly used than heteroradical. This makes me a little sad, but that’s probably just me.

However, I’m cheered by the fact that the abstract little debate about hybrid words seems to have leaked into popular culture, in a post-ironic sort of way. You can now buy the T-shirt:

Polyamory is wrong
Click to visit to the seller

(Do I need to tell you that polyamory is the practice of maintain several loving sexual relationships simultaneously, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved? I’m sure I don’t.)

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Oikofugic: Having a desire to leave home,  an urge to wander or travel

This word was coined in 1904 by the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, in his two-volume opus Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, and Religion. (Given the title, it’s amazing that he managed to hold it down to two volumes.) According to Hall, adolescents were trapped between oikofugic and oikotropic impulses: the desire to leave home on the one hand, and the desire to stay at home on the other. Hall was a great and ponderous coiner of new words. He also described adolescence as being characterized by “a marked decrease of scoliotropism”—that is, a reduced desire to go to school.

Striking For The Back Country (Kemble, 1885)
One of Kemble’s “Huckleberry Finn” illustrations (1885)

Hall seems to have formed his word from the Greek noun oikos, “a household”, and the Latin verb fugere, “to flee”. So it’s one of those Greek-Latin hybrids that made C.P. Scott write, “No good can come of it.”

Oikos also gives us oikology, a fancy name for home economics, and oikonisus, the desire to start a family. Both these words seem to have no actual life beyond featuring in collections of unusual words.

The Greeks called the whole civilized world the oikumene, as if it were one big residence or household. And when the first great gathering of Christian bishops took place at Nicaea in 325 AD, the resulting Council was called oikumenical, because attendance came from all over the (Christian) world. The English word ecumenical still applies to religious gatherings of this sort.

Fugere gives us fleeing words like fugitive, refuge and refugee. The Latin fugax, “fleeting”, is related, and crops up in medical Latin in the form of amaurosis fugax (“transient darkening”), which is a brief loss of vision in one eye; and proctalgia fugax, a transient, severe pain in the rectum.

The suffix -fuge is problematic. When derived from fugere, it has the sense “fleeing from”—as in centrifugal force, which makes objects appear to fly away from the centre of rotation. But medical Latin treated it as being derived from fugare, “to put to flight”. None of the resulting words is in common use today, but we once had febrifuge, a drug that drives away fever; vermifuge, a drug that causes the expulsion of intestinal worms; and dolorifuge, a drug that drives away pain (what we’d now call an analgesic).

The state of being oikofugic should logically be called oikofugia, though this doesn’t seem to be much attested. And someone suffering from oikofugia should be called an oikofuge.

The difficulty, of course, comes from that ambiguity in the suffix -fuge. So an oikofuge could also be interpreted as something that gets rid of oiks.

Words: Introduction

I’ve always loved words: unusual words, technical words, words with interesting etymologies, words that are often misused.

For a while at the end of the last millennium, I wrote little filler items about words for the British Medical Journal, under the slightly self-congratulatory title Words to the Wise. Some have survived to become accessible on the internet, albeit mostly behind a paywall on the BMJ website:

Turning the worm
Byzantine connections
An extended family
Poison arrows
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
Words that count (free full content)
The white album
Muscling in (free full content)

I also used to write occasional Word of the Day items for the site, almost all of which have now disappeared. There seems to be a solitary example remaining, oddly preserved on a completely different website. Not even my best one …

So, the set of posts Categorized as “Words” is my chance to get back into that sort of thing. And this time, since I’m setting the rules, I may make occasional diversions to talk about letters, phrases or quotations, too.

I’m planning to include phonetic pronunciations, which will involve a little preliminary fiddling around with web fonts. I apologize in advance if you find yourself peering at some little white boxes or question marks where there should be IPA characters.

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