Logomachy: An argument about words

Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word.* I do not think it means what you think it means.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride

Once people start to argue about the words they’ve been using in their argument, they’re having a logomachy. Nothing much useful happens after that, unless they’re philosophers. And I suppose that depends on what you feel about the usefulness of philosophy.

Logomachy comes from two Greek words. The first is logos, which had a primary meaning of “word” or “speech”, but was also used to signify “proportion”, “value”, “computation” and “argument”, among many other shades and facets of meaning. The second is machia, “fighting”.

Logos, of course, gives us all those words ending in -logy.  These have mainly two senses—there’s a group that has something to do with argument, and a group that has something to do with speech. The former is made up of all those -ologies like theology, geology and zoology, where the suffix indicates “the study of”. Exceptions to the -ology are petralogy (study of rocks), mineralogy (study of minerals) and genealogy (the study of family ancestry). I’m not going to talk any more about those, except to write genealogy again. Genealogy. GeneAlogy.

The other group is more interesting. As well as familiar words like eulogy (“good words”) and tautology (“same words”) it also offers us matæology (foolish conversation), psilology (empty talk), cacology (poor pronunciation) and polylogy (wordiness).

An apology was originally a verbal defence—only later did it develop its present association with contrition. The original sense of conducting a defence is still present in apologist (a person who defends or justifies the actions of another) and apologetics (a branch of theology that seeks to produce logical justification for Christianity). And analogy comes from the sense of logos involving proportions—originally a mathematical term for “equal proportions”, it developed into its current usage by, well, analogy.

When logos reaches English through French, it gives us the suffix -logue, which American English curtails to -log. So we have prologue, epilogue, dialogue and monologue. Analogue shares duties with analogy, and has the same derivation. (But catalogue comes from Greek legien, to choose.)

Logic takes us back to the “argument” sense of logos—a tool to help us put forward a good argument.

A logodædalist is cunning with words, logorrhœa is excessive speech,  a logolept is a word enthusiast, and logolatry is an unreasonable regard for words. (Stop looking at me like that.)

Latin loqui, “to speak”, is an obvious cousin to Greek logos, and it gives us a good crop of wordy words in English. A soliloquy involves talking to yourself; a colloquy involves talking to someone else; an alloquy involves addressing a group. So colloquial speech is what you use in conversation, but alloquial speech is the more formal language you might use when making a public address. Dulciloquy is soft speech; ambiloquy is ambivalent or ambiguous speech; blandiloquy is flattering speech; obloquy is slanderous speech; and stultiloquy is foolish speech.

A ventriloquist is literally a “belly speaker”; a dentiloquist speaks through his teeth, and a somniloquist speaks in her sleep.

If you speak much, you are loquacious. If you speak well, you are eloquent. If you speak too much, you are pleniloquent; if you say very little, you are pauciloquent; and if you speak quickly and volubly, you are tolutiloquent. If you’re a straight-talker, you’re planiloquent; a smooth talker, suaviloquent; a truth speaker, veriloquent; a plausible liar, mendaciloquent.

And if you can work a few of those words into conversation, you are grandiloquent—given to a lofty or imposing style of speech.

People love fighting almost as much as they do talking, so it’s no surprise that we have a host of -machy words, some more useful than others.

We have two words for single combat or duelling—the paradoxical pairing of monomachy and duomachy: the first emphasizes that each person fights alone, while the second notes that it takes two to make a fight. Monomachy has a long pedigree going back to the Greeks themselves; duomachy seems to be a one-off usage by Richard Francis Burton, and a hybrid of Latin and Greek roots, to boot—no good will come of it. Trimachy is understandably described as “rare” by the Oxford English Dictionary—it’s a series of three battles.

A naumachy is a naval battle; a hippomachy a fight on horseback; a symmachy is a wartime alliance; and I’ve previously mentioned skiamachy, which is shadow-boxing, or fighting with shadows. A thelymachy is a war amongst women, a poetomachy is a war between poets; and a gigantomachy is an apocalyptic battle, like the mythical one fought between the Greek gods and Titans.

Pygmachy looks like it should be the opposite of gigantomachy, but it’s actually a fist-fight, or the sport of boxing—from pygme, “fist”. (The connection to pygmy is that Greek pygme was also the name of a short measure of length, the distance from the elbow to the fist, making pygmaos an adjective meaning “short”.)

Tauromachy is bull-fighting; alectryomachy is cock-fighting; and cyanarctomachy is a fight between a dog and a bear, the old “sport” of bear-baiting. But on a completely different note sphæromachy, “sphere fighting”, is the game of bowls.

There are many others, but I’ll finish with a personal favourite—batrachomyomachy (ˌbætrəˌkəʊmaɪˈɒməkɪ), a war between frogs and mice. The original Batrachomyomachia is a mock-heroic Classical Greek epic in the style of Homer’s Iliad. No-one seems to be entirely sure of the identity of its author. A frog accidentally drowns a mouse, war is declared between mice and frogs, and the gods become involved in the resulting battle. It’s a short thing—you can read it in translation here.

Batrachomyomachia, Theodor Kittelsen 1885
Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen, 1885

So batrachomyomachy means “an overblown, trivial disagreement”—a storm in a teacup, a mountain out of molehill.

*As all fans of The Princess Bride already know, “that word” is “Inconceivable!” I’ve written more about that here.

2 thoughts on “Logomachy”

  1. I suppose there are thousands of words out there that I have never heard about. Can ‘t believe that at my advanced age I’m still learning new words. I really like the word section of your blog. Keep ’em coming !

    1. Some of these are historical curiosities and/or what the OED calls “nonce words” – one-off usages that never leaked into the general vocabulary. But others really deserve to be out there, in regular use. Is there anyone who has worked in a large organization for any length of time who doesn’t recognize the concept of batrachomyomachy?

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