etymological aside #1: neologism is a neologism

Back in the early 1700s, Frenchman Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles didn’t like neologisms. These are words often created by sticking bits and pieces of Latin or Ancient Greek together. They didn’t exist when native speakers of Latin and Greek walked the Earth, but they look like the genuine article.

Sometimes it’s a Latin root + a Latin root, like prequel from Latin PRE (prae “before”) + Latin QUEL (a clipping of sequela “that which follows”) – so prequel means “thing that follows except it comes first in time” – yikes.

Sometimes it’s a Greek root + a Greek root, like homophobia from Greek HOMO (ὁμός “same”) + the neologism (!) Greek PHOBIA (φόβος “panic flight” + noun-making suffix -ία).

And then there are the hybrids, like genocide from Greek GENO (γένος “race, kind”) + Latin CID (-cidium “killing”). This hybrid neologism should be **genticide (with GENTI from Latin gens (stem gent). And my favorite, a hybrid built on a case of mistaken identity: dyslexia from Greek DYS (δυσ- “bad, abnormal”) + the neologism (!) Greek LEXIA (λέξις “speech” + noun-making suffix -ία). By which dyslexia means “abnormal speech,” whereas it’s supposed to mean “abnormal reading.” Apparently 19th Century ophthalmologist Rudolf Berlin misremembered Greek LEX “speech” for Latin LEG “reading” when he named the disorder. (This was long before the quick Google check-your-facts era.)

Finally, there’s neologism itself! It’s from Greek NEO (νεός “new”) + Greek LOG (λόγος “word”) + Greek ISM (-ισμός “thing that has been made”). Pretty much what we’d expect: “a new made-up word.”

So it’s pretty awesome that Antoine François Prévost d’Exiles (aka Tony) didn’t like neologisms. After all, he invented the word for the very thing he hated.


Filed under etymological asides

2 responses to “etymological aside #1: neologism is a neologism

  1. katek211

    Do neologisms have to be made up of Latin and Greek? Or are non-words that have become real words (like “google” as a verb) also considered neologisms?

    • They don’t have to be made up of Latin and Greek, which is why I said “often” (and so I didn’t have to stray away from the Classics). So you’re absolutely correct: Google is a neologism, whether as a noun or a verb. And like dyslexia, it’s based on a misremembering. It should be Googol. But who’s going to argue with Google about Google? Or with Tony Prevost about neologism being a neologism?

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