Chapter 21: Greek Prefixes

§133. Exploring Greek Prefixes

Summaries of the type just presented are always a little overwhelming. Let us look for some short-cuts and strategies for learning the list.

Tackle first those prefixes that are obvious. In addition to the five we encountered in §131, you can deal easily with amphi- (“on both sides”) and peri- (“around”), which are quite uncomplicated. For the one, think of amphitheatre and amphibious; for the other, perimeter, periscope, periphery, peripatetic, and periphrasis. The prefix dia– is also fairly straightforward: diameter (“measure across”), diagonal (“through the angle”), diatonic (“through the tones”), diaphragm (“fence across”), and diaphanous (“showing through”). Like its Latin cognate, Greek pro- can mean “before” or “forward”: prophet (“before speaker”), prophecy, prophesy, proscenium, prostate, prophylactic, program, problem (see §137). Though they look much alike, hyper- (“over”) and hypo- (“under”) are easy opposites. English has the hybrids hyperactive (“That kid is hyper!”) and hypertension, plus hyperbole, hyperbola, and hyperthermia (a hot-tub ailment). In contrast, hypo- yields hypodermic, hypothesis, hypochondria, and hypothermia.

In some usages, ana- and cata- are also opposites, meaning “up” and “down.” An anabasis (“going up”) is the opposite of a catabasis (“going down”), but those words are rare and exotic. More common are analysis and catalysis, where -lysis is a “loosening.” Anatomy makes sense as “cutting up.” The force of cata- is apparent in catastrophe (“turning down”), cataclysm (“flooding down”), cataract (“breaking down”), and catalepsy (“seizing down”), but it is less clear in catalogue. Don’t be surprised or discouraged if you have trouble making the semantic connection between certain Greek prefixes and some of their English derivatives.

The Greek prefixes apo- and ec- (ex-) correspond quite closely to their Latin cognates ab- and ex-. The meaning “away from” is clear in apostle or apostolic (verb base “send”), apogee (ἀπο-γη), and apostrophe (originally a rhetorical “turning away”). What is an apotheosis? Something eccentric (ἐκ + κεντρον + -ικος) is “out of centre.” Can you work out the etymological meanings of eclectic, exodus, and ecdysis? The last is the action of the snake slipping out of its skin, or the larva shedding its cocoon. It was H.L. Mencken who used that notion to coin the impeccable Greek form ecdysiast, to describe a strip-tease dancer.

The difference between en- and epi- is basically the difference between in and on (or upon). A condition that is endemic (< δημος) is more ingrained than one that is epidemic—though the latter may be more alarming. Relatively few English words are derived from en-: energy, enema, enthusiasm—originally, a feeling that one had a god (θεος) inside one’s body. There are many more from epi-: epigram, epitaph, epidermis, epiglottis, eponym, eponymous, ephemeral (< ἡμερα, “day”). An eponym is a famous or notorious proper name that has been placed “upon” some object, process, condition, concept, etc.: Braille, boycott, pasteurize, cardigan, quisling, valentine, roentgen, Alzheimer’s Disease. A mysterious 18th century English physician, the apocryphal Dr. Condom, may be the eponymous hero of the prophylactic rubber sheath—though that etymology was questioned in the Oxford English Dictionary.

There are only three prefixes on the list that have not yet been mentioned. Pros- (usually “in addition”) is quite rare, occurring in the words prosthesis and prosthetic—referring to an artificial limb or other device that is “placed in addition.” Meta- suggests a carrying over or beyond, like Latin trans-, and will sometimes connote change: metaphor, metamorphosis, metathesis, metastasis, metaphysics. Finally there is para-, which most often means “beside” or “alongside.” The paragraph originally got its name from the symbol (now ¶) that was “written beside” it in the margin. A paradox is an opinion that stands beside or contrary to the norm. A paraplegic is one who has been struck at the side (paralyzed), as opposed to a quadriplegic, who has lost the use of all four limbs. Note also paraphrase, parallel (par-allel, “beside one another”), and paraphernalia, a word related to a bride’s dowry. In 20th century English, para- has been further extended in uses like parapsychology and paramedic.

There are some deceptive para- forms in English that have nothing to do with the Greek prefix. From Latin parare (“prepare”), Italian derived a combining form that meant a “shield” or “protection.” A parachute will protect us from falling, just as a parasol will shield us from the sun. A parapet (It. parapetto) was originally meant to protect the chest (L pectus). Because you have long since learned to take nothing for granted in word study, you won’t be surprised that English has two different forms spelled para-. It is certainly risky to leap to etymological conclusions merely on the basis of superficial appearances.

In lieu of exercises for Chapter 21, look up some of the italicized English words that have appeared in this section. But don’t worry too much about Greek vocabulary that is completely unfamiliar. There is a strong likelihood that many of those strange-looking words contain Greek verb bases that we’ll meet in the next chapter. You may recall that it was hard to get full control of Latin prefixes until we had studied some verb roots. That problem applies also to our work in Greek.

Here’s another short and snappy assignment. Now that we’ve surveyed the whole field of Greek prefixes, how many English derivatives can you list from the noun ὀνυμα (ὀνοματ- )?


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Greek and Latin Roots: Part II - Greek Copyright © 2016 by Peter Smith (Estate) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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