Chapter 17: Compound Words in Greek

§111. Interesting Words

Appropriately enough, the “study of humankind”—anthropology—appears to be the earliest of the “-ologies” to have entered the English language, in 1593. Originally, it was used to describe human enquiry in the broadest sense; its modern application to a more limited field dates from about 1860. There are now hundreds of academic disciplines and other studies that use this Greek word-building element, -λογια. If you are confronted with one that is unfamiliar to you, the challenge, of course, will be to identify the etymological meaning of the element that precedes the “-ology.” Even in the 20th century, the tradition is generally maintained that this element should be derived from Greek; recent hybrids like the jewellers’ gemmology (< L gemma) are rather exceptional.

You have met the noun base of metrology, the study of weights and measures. The study of causes, either medical or mythical, is aetiology (etiology).[1] Of particular interest to theologians and philosophers is eschatology, the study of last things—such as death and final judgement. Here are a few other examples that have a good Greek pedigree:

dendrology the study of trees ombrology the study of rain
limnology the study of lakes penology the study of punishment
herpetology the study of reptiles oenology the study of wine
eremology the study of deserts cartology[2] the study of maps

Compounds ending in -meter (< G μετρον) are measurement devices. The first element of barometer means “weight” or “pressure”; the instrument measures air pressure. Although their measurement function differs, the hybrid speedometer is an etymological equivalent of a tachometer. What does an anemometer measure? A sphygmomanometer?

Many of us suffer from phobias. The film Arachnophobia popularized one such affliction, named after ἀραχνη or ἀραχνης, the 1st declension Greek word for “spider.” According to an aetiological myth, Arachne was an arrogant young weaver, who was changed into a spider because of her foolish wish to rival the goddess of weaving, Athena. Though phobias are a serious matter, some of the descriptive labels are tongue-in-cheek. You may have encountered tris-kai-deka-phobia, a morbid fear of the number thirteen. Laurence J. Peter (author of The Peter Principle) defined papyrophobia (< G παπυρος, L papyrus) as “an abnormal desire for a clean desk.” (In a brilliant play on pyromania, he also coined the word papyromania, “the compulsive accumulation of papers.”) Other facetious and improbable coinages have included zonasphalophobia (“fear of seat-belts”), opsogalactophobia (“fear of omelettes”), and even pectocarpochylophobia (“fear of Jello”).

To judge by Greek compound derivatives, the opposite of love (φιλ-) may be either fear (φοβ-) or hate (μισ-).[3] Thus we have the antonyms anglophile and anglophobe—one who loves or fears the English. Often the phil- element comes first, as in philharmonic, “loving harmony” (ἁρμονια), philhellene, “lover of Greece,” and philanthropist, “lover of humanity.” The opposite of philanthropist is misanthrope. An aberration as old as time (alas!) is misogyny, male hatred of women (root γυν-). There now exists a counterpart word misandry, female hatred of men (root ἀνδρ-). It would be a better world if all members of both sexes practised philanthropy (φιλανθρωπια).


  1. G αἰτια (“cause”) > L aetia; English usage varies on the further reduction of the diphthong ae > e.
  2. From its Latinate spelling, this form might be identified as a hybrid; if strictly Greek, it ought to have been chartology. The word is modelled on cartography (1859), which was also spelled chartography.
  3. The parenthetical forms are the Greek roots, which may occur in both noun and verb bases. For our purposes, we needn’t worry whether the source of the compound was a noun or a verb.

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§111. Interesting Words by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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