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poofandmook's avatar

How do these word parts fit into certain words, based on their definitions? (details inside)

Asked by poofandmook (17272points) June 29th, 2010

As suggested in the thread about anatomy, I’m making flash cards for the medical terminology prefixes and suffixes. There are a few that don’t really make sense to me though. For example:

“bio” means life, but how does that fit with “biopsy”?

“chondr” means cartilage, but how does that fit into “hypochondriac”?

Just trying to get a better grasp on these.

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20 Answers

sleepdoc's avatar

Here is the thing .. although some of the words have their roots in other languages ie Latin. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the root always functions the way it should.

poofandmook's avatar

@sleepdoc: So what you’re saying is that for the most part, you can generally determine the word by knowing the roots, but it’s not always going to be correct? Sometimes defining the parts doesn’t make any sense in the word they’re found in? Greeeaaat. lol

sleepdoc's avatar

Yeah that is the case. Sorry anatomy is lots of memorizing things. For me it was a matter of learning some way to relate them to each other.

janbb's avatar

Here is a definition of hypochondraic that explains the etymology.

poofandmook's avatar

@sleepdoc: Memorization isn’t hard for me. That’s how I used to pass tests… I would just flat out memorize my notes and recite them in my head during the test. But I usually think very literally so when I see “hypochondriac” I think “under cartilage” and that’s not right.

sleepdoc's avatar

@poofandmook I can understand your frustration…..

zenele's avatar

Read @janbb ‘s link. It’s good.

poofandmook's avatar

…of course the link @janbb posted explains it very well. The word initially did mean “below cartilage” of the ribs, but the word has evolved into something else.

What’s annoying is that for “bio” the example is “biopsy” but a biopsy doesn’t really pertain to “life”.

janbb's avatar

Yes, it does – I was looking for a link but my effing computer is acting up. A biopsy is a “sy” -same root as “autopsy” – but that is done on living tissue. See? (Librarian on summer vacation.) If the computer will let me find a link, I will post it.

janbb's avatar

Here’s a definition of biopsy. Not as good on the etymology as the hypochondriac one, but it corroborates my statement.

MacBean's avatar

Semi-related story: When I was about nine or ten years old, I used to wonder why an autopsy was something someone else did to you. Didn’t “auto” mean “self”? I pondered this for a couple of years before I turned into a real word geek and started studying etymology and discovered that autopsy is “to see for oneself” rather than just to see oneself.

poofandmook's avatar

@janbb: Ah, okay because my mind saw “psy” which didn’t make any sense. Thanks :)

Jeruba's avatar

Natural-language derivation from roots is not quite the same thing as deliberately assembling a word out of parts like Legos. There’s a difference between real words that have evolved over time and words that were coined for some particular (usually scientific, which includes medical) purpose. Decoding them is usually a different process too.

Some words have broadened in meaning since their first use, so the roots point to their history but not to their full contemporary meaning. Some coinages were based on a wrong understanding in the first place and reflect scientific error, but we kept them anyway. Some roots may have more than one meaning (for example, the “ped” of “foot” and the “ped” of “pediatric, an example of Latin vs. Greek sources). And there is just plain old drift in both meaning and usage, which even affects words that may not have evolved much in form.

So knowing the roots is an excellent way to get close to a deeper understanding of a word, and a valuable tool to have in your belt in a multiple-choice vocabulary test, but it’s not infallible and it’s not absolute.

poofandmook's avatar

interesting, “hetro” means different and “homo” means the same, yet in terms of heterosexuality and homosexuality, they’re perceived the opposite way. Hetero is the same as everyone else, and homo is different from everyone else. Very interesting.

I love this stuff

Val123's avatar

Thanks for the prompt @janbb! It reminded me of an online thinger I have for one particular lesson. http://www.etymonline.com/
See if that helps Poof!

Jeruba's avatar

@poofandmook, that’s not quite the right reading of “homo” and “hetero.” It’s not an opposite perception. With respect to sexuality, it doesn’t mean whether you are like others or different from others. It means that you have a preference for, or your sexuality is oriented toward, one of the other kind (hetero) or one of the same kind (homo).

Likewise, “heterodox” means “holding another opinion” (not orthodox) and “heterogeneous” means “different in kind or made up of different kinds of parts” (as opposed to “homogeneous,” all the same).

poofandmook's avatar

ah… didn’t consider it from that angle. That makes sense.

morphail's avatar

@Jeruba How is knowing the roots an excellent way to get close to a deeper understanding of a word?

Jeruba's avatar

Hi there, @morphail. I sense that you have an answer of your own for this. I’d be interested to read it.

I think seeing the relationships of the components of a word, root and affixes and inflections, sheds light on the internal logic of the word, as well as helping with the spelling. It also gives a glimpse of the word’s history. And it points to relationships to related words. Knowing that all words with “anthro” have something to do with “man” or “mankind,” for example (misanthrope, anthropology, anthropocentric), and that words with “gyn” usually have to do with women (gynecologist, misogyny, polygynist), makes them more than just long, complex combinations of letters. The parts have meaning, and they have meaning in relation to the whole as well as to each other.

Understanding that most words with a “bi” prefix and many with “di” and “du” and “dy” have something to do with twoness or duality tells us something right from the first glance. And it’s not just the Greek and Latin elements, either. Knowing that all those two words that are so closely related—two, twice, twine, twist, duplicity, double, devil, etc.—amplifies their meaning with the ancient idea that unity is good and duality is evil, just like the Faerie Queene‘s Una and Duessa. Seeing words in family groupings and looking at their evolution over time tells us more about what we’re really saying when we use them. The fact that the coarser or more vulgar terms for a lot of common things are Germanic in their origins and the more refined or politer terms come from French reflects some history and politics that still inform our language. I think it’s interesting that we use the Germanic words for livestock and switch to the French when they become items on a menu: swine > pork; cow > beef; sheep > mutton; etc.

I can’t and don’t intend to give a complete discourse on word origins, etymology, and morphology here, nor am I qualified to do it, being without any formal education on the subject. I am self-taught through a lifetime of paying fascinated attention to the wealth of information contained in dictionaries and from reading textbooks in linguistics and studying aspects of a number of languages. I am more than ready to be further enlightened by someone with solid academic knowledge of the subject.

morphail's avatar

@Jeruba thanks. You make some good points. I agree that knowing the meaning of roots like “gyn” or “anthro” can help divine a word’s meaning. I’m just not convinced that you need to know the etymologies of the words to do this. That is, it’s not important to know that “gyn” is from the Greek for “woman”, it’s just useful to know that it means “woman”.

Your point about words related to “two” and evil is interesting. Certainly a knowledge of etymology can help with understanding intended meanings in literature, assuming that the author’s level of etymological knowledge is the same as yours. And studying etymology might give us insight into how attitudes towards something might have changed.

What I don’t believe that there is some deeper meaning hidden in a word that can only be revealed by its etymology, or as you put it, that the etymology of a word can tell us what we’re really saying when we use the word. This strays close to the etymological fallacy. Most of us know very little about etymology. How can what we really mean when we use language now be somehow influenced by the way the language was used in the past?

Sadly “devil” is not related to “two”, but it should be.

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