Half Greek and half Latin

2016/04/05

In college I was stage manager for a production of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love, a long play (I think ours was about 5 hours) about memory, scholarship, classics, love, _et al. _set in 19th century Oxford. In one of my favorite moments, the main character, a homosexual, hears the word “homosexual” for the first time. He responds, " ’_Homo_sexuals’? Who is responsible for this barbarity? […] It’s half Greek and half Latin!" He’s upset that “homosexual” is a mashup of the Ancient Greek ομός (meaning “like” or “same”) and the Latin sexualis (“relating to sex”).

I had my own “who is responsible for this barbarity” moment yesterday when I learned about the etymology of the words “polygamy” and “polygyny”. I had just told a friend that “polyamory” is one of these Greek-Latin hybrids (Greek πολύ [“much”] + Latin amor love). I was then struck by the weirdness of these other word’s etymologies:

“Polygamy” means (according to the dictionary) having sex with multiple partners regardless of marriage status. This is odd, since the root is Greek-Greek πολύ “many” + γάμος “marriage”. Contrast this against “polygyny”, which the dictionary says means a marriage practice in which one man has many wives. The root here is πολύ + Ancient Greek γυνή “woman, wife”. I’ve always heard people say that, for example, the Mormon church used to practice poly_gamy_, but by this definition it should be said that they used to practice poly_gyny_. The Ancient Greeks made y and a sound really different, but in English we pronounce both of them mostly like uh, so I have a hard time hearing whether someone said poly_gam_y or poly_gyn_y.

What a mess.