Friday, December 27, 2013


In the fourth chapter of his novella Flaubert's Parrot, Julian Barnes—punning on Gustave Flaubert's repeated comparisons between himself and a bear—writes:
It is not known whether Flaubear ever ate his namesake. He ate dromedary in Damascus in 1850. It seems a reasonable guess that if he had eaten bear he would have commented on such ipsophagy. 
Ipsophagy, you ask? What's that? Self-devouring, like the Ouroboros, presumably—a combination of Latin ipso-, meaning "itself" (as in the phrase ipso facto, by the fact itself) and the suffix -phagy, as in "anthropophagy" (cannibalism), "bacteriophage" (a microbe that eats bacteria), "coprophagous" (like these guys), and so forth.

But the problem is that the -phagy etymon ("etymon, n.: a word or morpheme from which a later word is derived") isn't Latin. It's Greek. And that makes ipsophagy a strange (if clever) hybrid of two languages—as potentially strange to behold as déjà seen or Schadenhappiness. A purely Greek version would be autophagy (which is in fact a piece of biological jargon) or perhaps even heautophagy, by way of the wonderful word heautoscopy, which Roland Barthes employs in Camera Lucida, his extended meditation on photography:
Heautoscopy was compared with an hallucinosis; for centuries this was a great mythic theme.
A Latin version would be more awkward: perhaps ipsoesive (hard to sound out), or maybe ipsoconsumptive.

Julian Barnes would not like me picking on his coinage, I'm sure, but I don't mean to single him out: the language is littered with Greco-Latin hybrids, nearly all of them post-classical. People are fond of pointing out that television is one—a mix of Greek tēle, "faraway," and Latin vision. (Teleport faces the same issues; telekinesis, however, is real.) So, too, are "hyperactive" (Greek hyper + Latin active), "automobile" (Greek auto + Latin mobile), and "neuroscience" (Greek neuron + Latin science). (Possible alternatives: superactive? Autokinetic? Neurepisteme?) Daniel Mendelsohn, in a recent essay on the historical novelist Mary Renault, writes that "sniff[ing] out a fake" is one of the little luxuries of the classicist:
The word "homosexual," for instance, is a solecism, a hybrid of Greek (homos, "alike") and Latin (sexualis, "sexual").
Better, perhaps, "identisexual" and "alterosexual"—or "homoerast" and "heteroerast." Okay, so these may be monstrosities—but I rather like "ambisexual" in place of "bisexual" (though since the bi- prefix is Latinate, the current word actually has no problems). "Mammogram" and "pedometer" would have to go. And "Scientology" would have to be renamed. (Unfortunately for Tom Cruise, "epistemology" and "technology" are already taken.)

Of course, all of this assumes that hybrids are a problem, which they aren't, or need not be. Why not go around inventing such words, as long as you are honest about them? This merely proves the lessons that every classics teacher wants to impart: that Latin and Greek are not dead—that little bits of them are floating around, very alive, within the living languages, constantly evolving into new shapes. Dinosaurs aren't dead; they're just birds. Latin and Greek can assort and make whatever strange new chimeras they very well like. It's downright amazing, or perhaps it's miraculous, or thaumaturgical, or maybe all three at the same time. (Thaumacles, anyone?)

1 comment:

  1. Many of the late-19th-century classicists who were so pivotal in the invention of homosexuality objected strenuously to the 'bastard compound' 'homosexual' (including Symonds). I dimly remember someone advocating 'simisexual' as an alternative. So Mendelsohn's comment has a long history! For my favorite fictional (though based in reality) objection, see Stoppard's Housman in The Invention of Love.