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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