The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

The word hybrid (from Latin hybrida, ‘mongrel’) commonly refers to animals and plants of mixed lineage, and more recently to vehicles with two or more power sources. In linguistic morphology it refers to a word formed by combining elements that originated in two or more languages. The process is called hybridization.

Many new words arise through compounding and affixation, and a lot of roots and affixes in English derive from Latin or Greek — sometimes indirectly, such as through French. (Classical compounds are a related source of new vocabulary, but they are of a ‘purer’ strain than hybrids and need not concern us here.)

There is a tendency for like to join with like, but because affixes from other languages are so well-established in English, and their origins are not widely known, etymological affinity is not routinely observed when words are formed. English has always added foreign bits to native bits, and both to other foreign bits. It does this in its sleep.

Hybrids are ubiquitous: they ‘luxuriate in the English word-garden’, as Simeon Potter put it. A familiar example is television, which (via French) yokes Greek tele– ‘far’ to Latin visio ‘seeing’. Neuroscience joins Greek neuro– ‘nerve’ to science, from Latin scientia ‘knowledge’. Other hybrids include automobile, hypercorrectionlovable, merriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Frankenstein’s monster reads a hybrid word and collapses in a daze; Dr F. flees in fright and disgust.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavoury to fuse morphemes from different languages. Maybe this attitude owed something to a fastidious temperament and a bias for classical learning. Jan Freeman, writing about these Frankenwords, said that ‘usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them.’

Eric Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, said neologisms should avoid ‘unseemly misalliance’ and pay heed to ‘etymological decency’. Ralcy Husted Bell called jeopardize ‘a monster’, which seems a bit harsh. These phrases give the impression that hybrids are malformed abominations, hideous chimeras to be shunned and disowned.

In their influential King’s English, the Fowler brothers object to amoral on the grounds that a– is Greek, moral is Latin, and it is ‘desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed’. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following ‘ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, & some all’:

amoral, amusive, backwardation, bi-daily, bureaucracy, cablegram, climactic, coastal, colouration, dandiacal, floatation, funniment, gullible, impedance, pacifist, racial, sendee, speedometer

Several are so commonplace that it’s hard to imagine them bothering anyone; others never caught on. Often it seems to be the newness wherein lies the main trouble: rarely is there a problem with well-established hybrids. On this point, Robert Burchfield found that ‘the arguments apply only to words formed in the 19C. and 20C.’

Fowler believed that word-making,

like other manufactures, should be done by those who know how to do it; others should neither attempt it for themselves, nor assist the deplorable activities of amateurs by giving currency to fresh coinages before there has been time to test them.

But even if we were to deny ourselves the natural, playful urge to neologise, who would do the testing to which Fowler refers? An elite cadre of grammarians and grammaticasters, or the general population whose language it equally is? Again I find myself siding with Burchfield, in his New Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

Homogeneity of language origin comes low in [language users’] ranking of priorities; euphony, analogy, a sense of appropriateness, an instinctive belief that a word will settle in if there is a need for it and will disappear if there is not — these are the factors that operate when hybrids (like any other new words) are brought into the language.

This to me is a more sane and tolerant stance, free of purist dogma and control-freakery. Rejecting hybrids in English just because their parts’ ancient origins don’t match is pointless peevery. Bryan Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, writes that nowadays ‘only a few Classics professors’ object to them. Let us be thankful for that.

My only regret is that hybrid is not a hybrid and so does not describe itself the way portmanteau does. But it’s probably too late to do anything about that.


Updates: Ben Zimmer has drawn my attention to a T-shirt with the text: ‘Polyamory is wrong! It is either multiamory or polyphilia but mixing Greek and Latin roots? Wrong!’

Ben quotes a similar joke from Tom Stoppard’s play The Invention of Love: ‘Homosexuality? What barbarity! It’s half Greek and half Latin!’

This post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.
[Frankenstein image from Wikimedia Commons]

22 Responses to The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology

  1. johnwcowan says:

    What’s more, this particular peeve is applied only to words that the Classically educated peever can easily recognize as hybrids. The English agent suffix -er was borrowed in Old English times from Latin -arius, but nobody complains about miscegenation in walker, runner, hitter. Likewise, re- is Romance but is freely attached to all sorts of native roots, so redo, rewrite are also hybrids.

    • Christopher Ray Miller says:

      Actually, this agentive -er is from old Germanic roots and has direct cognates in all other Germanic languages (Dutch, German -er; Dutch -aar, Swedish -are etc.). It was -ere in Old English, and the original Proto-Germanic has been reconstructed as *-ari which some assume may have been borrowed from Latin -arius, though that is not a certainty.

  2. Jonathon says:

    “What’s more, this particular peeve is applied only to words that the Classically educated peever can easily recognize as hybrids.”

    The same goes for most etymological arguments. Hardly anyone cares about the etymology of native English words; we only get worked up about ones of Latin or Greek origin.

  3. korystamper says:

    Of course, the whole hybridization complaint ignores two important points:

    1. Both Classical and New Latin often borrowed from Greek, so some of the hybrids that Fowler et al. object to aren’t as mismatched as they’d have us think;

    2. English hasn’t been “etymologically pure” since about 900AD. Maybe earlier if we count early OE borrowings from Latin (OE _maessa_ from L _missa_ comes to mind).

    An aside: “backwardation” shoulda made it. What a great compound.

    • Allen Eugene Booth says:

      Well, English is a Germanic language, influenced by High German. German was influenced by Latin when the territory that is now Germany was part of the Roman Empire. American English, in particular, has borrowed words from all over the place. Such words as “vamoose” and “calaboose” come immediately to mind.

  4. Marc Leavitt says:

    One of the virtues of English is its seemingly endless ability to coin new hybrids. Peckish peevery proliferates perpetually

  5. Stan says:

    John: True, and it illustrates how peeves tend to be inconsistently indulged. Garner quotes Ralcy Husted Bell saying -er is “incorrectly affixed to such words as photograph“; Bell states his preference for photographist before mentioning some inevitable exceptions (such as biographer) that are “firmly fixed in the language”.

    Jonathon: Yes. It seems to reveal a certain preciousness that may be a legacy of the time classical langauges were envied for their greater beauty, elegance, purity, and so on: thoroughbreds compared to the mongrel in common use!

    Kory: You’re trying to spoil their fun, aren’t you? It’s a relief this griping over hybrids has largely stopped. It’s utterly at odds with the history and nature of the language, which has been hungrily heterogeneous as a matter of course. For more than a millennium, as you point out, English has mixed with and assimilated other tongues. The purer a language, the less likely it is to be used by more than a small number of people.

    Marc: Quite right. People hybridize for fun. If every English user had a classical education, we might be more mindful of how etymologically consistent our coinages are, but we don’t, so we aren’t, and that’s fine.

  6. Michael Vnuk says:

    Korystamper wrote: ‘An aside: “backwardation” shoulda made it. What a great compound.’ Well, it is a word in the stock exchange, but I don’t know if it has the same meaning as when the Fowlers objected to it.

  7. h. s. gudnason says:

    @Michale Vnuk:

    It did have the same meaning then:

    A Company Promoter this with special education,
    Which teaches what Contango means and also Backwardation–
    To speculators he supplies a grand financial leaven,
    Time was when two were company–but now it must be seven.

    From Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia (Limited), written 13 years before the Fowlers published their first book.

  8. Stan says:

    The OED defines backwardation as “a premium paid by the seller of stock or commodities in some cases where delivery is to be deferred”; American Heritage has “a state in which the price of a futures contract is lower than the eventual or expected spot price of the underlying commodity or security”.

    The word appears to have been around for almost 250 years. Wikipedia has more on the technicalities. I’m surprised it hasn’t taken on a more general sense.

  9. korystamper says:

    Michael, H.S., and Stan: I stand happily corrected! I’m not M-W’s resident expert on economics, which is why I wasn’t familiar with it. I’m glad “backwardation” pushed on and is living a full life somewhere in the language.

  10. substuff says:

    I so wish I had studied Latin and Greek at school – I love all this stuff, but working it out is so painstaking. Great post. I shall be quoting it like I knew it all along.

  11. Stan says:

    Kory: I’d never heard of it either, and would not have guessed it was an economic term. It sounds more like sporting jargon or a humorous word for a political trend.

    Cathy: I wish I had studied them too. For quick and reliable reference, Michael Quinion’s Affixes site is excellent, and worth bookmarking.

  12. Polyamorous says:

    see ‘genocide,’ Rafael Lempkin

  13. […] are a ton of other hybrid words like this: television, neuroscience, monolingual, sociology, amoral, bureaucracy, etc. In fact, […]

  14. […] that neologisms “should be formed with some regard to etymological decency” (lest they be monstrous hybrids), says new words adopted directly from other languages are less objectionable “provided always […]

  15. […] about it. If some bright spark hadn’t invented the hybrid word television from the Greek tele – meaning far and the Latin visio – meaning seeing, we might have had to […]

  16. […] other local and arbitrary factors. In a post on hybrid etymology I referred to purists who complain about words like jeopardize based on a misconception that […]

  17. […] Ambivilanthropy. (Yes I’m aware of the Greek/Latin origins. If it’s good enough for television, it’s good enough for […]

  18. Paul P. says:

    All very interesting and entertaining. I’ve been working on a scientific name for a new critter (zoology) and was worried because what I came up with is part Greek, part Latin. Now I’m less worried.

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