Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

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 automobilehypercorrectionlovablemerriment, monolingual, sociology, and talkative.

Purists used to complain about hybrids as if it were somehow unsavory 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":

amoralamusivebackwardationbi-dailybureaucracy, cablegramclimacticcoastalcolourationdandiacalfloatation, funnimentgullibleimpedancepacifistracialsendee, 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.

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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 30th 2011, 5:15 AM
Comment by: george k. R. (Rio Verde, AZ)
Thursday December 1st 2011, 7:41 AM
Comment by: Alice M. (Neuss Germany)
Very nice piece, Stan.
Friday December 2nd 2011, 5:44 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
George, that's a cryptic one.

Thank you for reading it, Alice.
Monday December 5th 2011, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
The fact that some people object to words on this basis is almost laughable. Are there really any modern "usage experts" who think this is a valid objection to acceptability? You didn't place any of your quoted authorities in time but I have the impression they're from an earlier era. When are people going to learn that *language cannot be controlled by a central authority?* Even "perfectly constructed" languages like Esperanto have evolved over time as the users on the ground see new possibilities and shortcuts that "corrupt" the original vision. With a language as polymorphous as English, how can anyone expect users to pay attention to the origins of roots and affixes in long-dead languages? It's ludicrous.
Monday December 5th 2011, 12:17 PM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Wood: Yes, I agree entirely. The authorities I quoted who felt it was important to uphold etymological "decency" in hybridization date from the late-19th to the mid-20th century. Burchfield's more reasonable position came later. I don't know of any sound modern usage authority who objects to hybrids; it is, for the reasons you say, an absurd peeve upon which to insist.

But the wish for a central authority, and the belief that it could be effective and beneficial, is unlikely to disappear entirely.
Thursday December 8th 2011, 11:34 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
My favorite hybrid is chocoholic, with its mix of Nahuatl, Arabic, and Latin/Greek. But it still bugs me when I read syntactic analyses about whether some construction is "monoclausal or biclausal." Dammit, you could at least stick to one language for this nice, paired set of words! Monoclausal, diclausal, or uniclausal, biclausal. But noooo, I guess that's too much to ask.
Friday December 9th 2011, 8:20 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Neal: Chocoholic is a tasty blend indeed! I guess you're entitled to fuss a little over consistency in the context you describe. The prefixes are thoroughly established in English, awareness of their origins much less so, but in technical analysis it would be nice to see the appropriate pairs matched.

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