Aphercotropism.

HaggardHawks (“Words, language, & etymology”) posted last July about a word that is just barely hanging on at the fringe of the English wordhoard: aphercotropism. As many readers pointed out when HaggardHawks first tweeted about it, it’s not in the dictionaries, but neither did HaggardHawks make it up — its first appearance seems to be in this 1899 note in The Selborne Magazine, where it is defined as “Turning away from an obstruction.” Since then it has failed to catch on to such an extent that it is not even in the Third Edition of the OED. HaggardHawks explains its etymology thus:

First of all, the prefix aph– derives from a Greek word, apo, meaning “off” or “away from”. It’s the same root we see in words like apocalypse (which literally means “uncovered” or “disclosed”), apocryphal (literally “hidden away”), and even apology, which originally referred to a formal defence or justification, or to a personal account of a story (and so literally means “from speech”).

Secondly, the –erco– part comes from another Greek word, erkos, referring to a fence, a barrier, or a some kind surrounding wall. It only has a handful of offspring in modern English, the majority of which are fairly obscure, long-forgotten terms (the kind that HaggardHawks devours) that have found their way into the dustier corners of the OED: hercotectonic (“pertaining to the construction of walls”), poliorcetic (“relating to the besieging of cities”), and hercogamous, a botanical term describing plants that grow “barriers” between their male and female parts in order to prevent self-fertilization. Apparently.

So that only leaves the suffix –tropism, which you’ll likely recognise from words like heliotropism (“turning towards the sun”) and phototropism (“growth towards a light source”).

While I admire the pedagogical spirit and lively style, I can’t help but feel a site focused on words and etymology should have done a better job. There is no “prefix aph–,” there is a prefix ap–, which indeed derives from apo. When you put it in front of a morpheme beginning with h–, naturally you wind up with aph–. The problem following on from this is “another Greek word, erkos”; as can be seen from the examples adduced, the word is herkos (ἕρκος) with an h– (reflected in spelling by a rough breathing). One can and should be aware of this stuff even without knowing Greek; studying the etymologies in any good dictionary should do the trick. [N.b.: The post has been amended to correct the error; thanks for the heads-up, Suse!] Still, I’m glad to know about HaggardHawks (via MetaFilter), and I recommend checking it out — from this entry I learned that the planet Uranus was originally going to be called George.

Comments

  1. I reviewed the same writer’s Word Drops last year: it’s a book I enjoyed very much, except for a few factual missteps and lapses into prescriptivism.

  2. What’s the story with poliorcetic(s)? Is the o an ablaut phenomenon, or something else?

  3. Eli Nelson says:

    I’d guess it’s the result of vowel fusion.

  4. Re Uranus: I guess Herschel really wanted to kiss it and love and squeeze it and hug it.

  5. It’s ablaut: compare πατήρ / ἀπάτωρ, φρήν / εὔφρων.

    There’s also what looks like a simplex o-grade noun from the same root, ὅρκος, but it means “oath”. “Barrier” > “restriction placed on oneself” > “oath”?

    One of Homer’s favorite tags is ἕρκος ὀδόντων “barrier of the teeth” (which words pass through when uttered) — which I guess is appropriate given that his poems are about a famous πολιορκία and its aftermath. In many years of studying Greek I’d never connected the two words before now.

  6. Re Uranus: I guess Herschel really wanted to kiss it and love and squeeze it and hug it.

    Heh. (The reference, for those unfamiliar with the meme.)

  7. The adjective πολιορκητικός is closely related to from the verb πολιορκέω ‘besiege’, which looks like an isolated survival, in a compound, of *ὁρκέω, an iterative/causative stem derived from the same root *serk- ‘block, obstruct’ (?) which generated the apparently deverbal neuter s-stem ἕρκος, -εος. It is often suspected (though hard to prove, given the semantic gap) that the thematic masculine ὅρκος ‘oath’ belongs to the same cognate set. The o-grade also occurs in the evidently related ὁρκάνη ‘enclosure’ (with a younger e-grade variant, ἑρκάνη). This may be a derivative of the abstract noun *sérk-mn̥ → *sork-m̥n-ah₂ (cf. ὄργανον ‘instrument’ from *werǵ- ‘(do) work’, ἔργμα ‘work’). Indeed, a reflex of *sérk-mn̥ is attested as ἕργμα ‘fence, obstacle’ (the pre-nasal voicing is normal).

  8. For potential cognates there’s Lat. sarciō “mend, repair” and Hitt. sarnikzi “replace; reimburse”, which formally look like they come from the same root *serk- or *serḱ-, but the semantics are pretty distant (something like “make complete” might be a potential common denominator).

  9. Reminds me of the standard dictionary of constellations, written in an age supposedly more learned in classical languages, that derives Ophiuchus from ophi plus oukhos.

  10. That’s the same phenomenon with a slight wrinkle: it should have been ophi-okhos, but there were lots of -okhos compounds with o-stem first members and these contracted -o-okhos to -oukhos, and that unetymological form seems to have been generalized here.

  11. Trond Engen says:

    defined as “Turning away from an obstruction.”

    Hva gjorde laboranten da han kom til labyrinten? Han labba rundt’en!

  12. Trond Engen says:

    And of course Ibsen:
    Gå utenom, sa Bøigen

  13. the planet Uranus was originally going to be called George.

    This sounds like a Monty Python sketch in making.

  14. Phil Jennings says:

    I much regret the second idea of calling it Herschel didn’t win out. So much better than Uranus. I’d be proud to live in a solar system with a planet Herschel.

  15. So that’s why some people have been calling the new Planet X (detected but not yet discovered) ‘George’?

  16. If they have, I’m sure that’s why.

  17. When Nunavut was created, there was a widely circulated proposal to rename the residual Northwest Territories “Bob”. For serious, though, I don’t know why they haven’t renamed it “Mackenzie”, the name of the old administrative district with which it’s roughly coextensive.

  18. Georgium Sidus“, i.e. “George’s Star” is not the same thing as “George”, surely.

  19. Indeed. And what kind of genitive is Georgium, anyway? Historical documents agree on it, but surely it should have been Georgii sidus?

  20. Surely it’s an attributive? “The George Star.” It’s formed on a Greek root, after all. Georgii sidus would suggest to me “the star that actually belongs to George.”

  21. I think it’s being used as an adjective here, in the fashion of the Roman nomina gentilicia – for example, the Julian forum being the Forum Julium. (I once had a TA who, knowing nothing about Latin, claimed that the Basilica Julia was named after Caesar’s daughter.)

  22. Perhaps “The Georgian Star”, then.

  23. the star that actually belongs to George, and which is his…

  24. I would give your TA partial credit if he claimed it was named after Augustus’s daughter.

  25. rename the residual Northwest Territories “Bob”

    Just a universe away, the roughly similar Unincorporated Territories take the same attitude to the Underlands (the rest of the North American League) that the NWT does to the Canadian South or Alaska does to the Lower 48. Most of the individual Territories are traditionalist Native, though oddly enough they have no representative at the Council Fire of the Six Nations. One of the more quirky Newcommer [sic] Territories is Watlings Pond up by Alyaska, which by treaty sends three and a half MPs (the half being a Siberian husky named Cawn) to the UT Parliament in Winnipeg.

    Alyaskans, by contrast, see themselves as the modern successors to the liberal, democratic-minded portion of 19C Russia, as opposed to those benighted ultra-Orthodox post-fascists (until 1991, actual fascists) in Moscow and Petrograd-Novgorod and their lackeys in the rest of the Russian Federation. Oddly, Alyaskans have no such feeling against the Japanese Empire, which ruled them from afar from 1905 to 1952. Nowadays, Alyaska is fully independent, and though it is in no way Communist, all power is with the soviets (local, regional, and national). That said, neither Alyaskans nor UTs are quite as oddball as their immediate southern/western neighbor, the People’s Democratic and Ecotopic Republic of Oregon.

  26. “an h– (reflected in spelling by a rough breathing)” –> “a rough breathing (reflected in spelling by an h–)”

  27. No, Hat’s right: he means the word contains the sound [h-], which is reflected in Greek spelling by a rough breathing.

  28. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @mollymooly: rough breathing is not a phonetic concept (although it may sound like something related to breathy voice), but an orthographic mark in the Ancient Greek alphabet.

  29. I must disagree: My old philology professor always advocated against the blanket transliteration of rough breathing ‘h’, and it is a view I have since championed – as many fail to appreciate, rough breathing was not universal in Ancient Greek (psilotic dialects like Aeolian had no rough breathing at all, and /h/ steadily vanished from all dialects over time). An ‘h’, she argued, should only be introduced if there is good evidence for it from the text (i.e. if its dialect or period is known).

    Surely it is the task of all objective transliterations (like those in the blog you quote above) to remain as neutral as possible – and so stating that ἕρκος should be transliterated as ‘herkos’, and that the OP was wrong to use ‘erkos’, risks prescriptively tarring all Greek with the same brush.

    After a little reading of my own, it appears this point-blank application of ‘h’ – which, to my dismay, has in recent decades become almost standard – is a somewhat overzealous 20th century trend, as at least three AG dictionaries I have at my disposal (all pre-1930) give ‘erkos’ not ‘herkos’ here.

    Note also that the OED does indeed list ‘aph–’ as a prefix: A “phonetic variant of ἀπό ‘off, away from,’ used before an aspirated vowel”, in their words. Here, the intrusive ‘h’ is given to an optional prefix (as in the blog you quote) leaving, one can presume, the following morpheme unaltered – thereby respecting its underlying orthography, and holding back from applying a rough breathing ‘h’ to a form that would only have used it in certain dialects and periods.

    Perhaps not, then, the OP’s ignorance as you suggest, but just a different, more neutral approach to the material?

  30. My old philology professor always advocated against the blanket transliteration of rough breathing ‘h’

    That is essentially an argument against transliteration (which means representing the litterae of one script by those of another in a consistent fashion, so that the former can be recovered from the latter) and for something closer to, but not actually reaching, phonetic transcription. This is a good thing in itself, but not the same thing. We do not hear of professors of English (as a foreign language) arguing that because the letter ‘h’ in English in some words and in some dialects represents no sound, it therefore should be dropped in such cases in scholarly writings. We transcribe English using the IPA, and otherwise write it in its own orthography.

    In addition, I do not understand what is objective about deciding that the rough breathing should be transcribed as zero unless it can be proved otherwise. Neither would it be objective to say that the rough breathing should be transcribed as h unless it can be proved otherwise. If we always knew for every text which rough breathings were phonetic and which merely conventional, that would be another matter, but we don’t.

  31. JC said it a lot more nicely than I would have. Your old philology professor’s idea was so misguided it verges on nonsense. It reminds me of an old Teach Yourself Greek I used to have whose author felt that accent marks were useless and nobody pronounced them, and so left them out entirely.

  32. There is an argument to be made for something close to LJ’s old professor’s position, namely that editors shouldn’t print rough breathings in the Greek text in dialects where we know [h] wasn’t pronounced. This is already partly the case, but not consistently so: Sappho’s psilotic Aeolic is printed without rough breathings, but Herodotus’s equally psilotic Ionic is printed with them. (And if you do leave out rough breathings, you may as well go all the way and leave out smooth breathings too, but for some reason nobody ever does this.) It’s a little like the deplorable practice of printing inscriptions with added accents and breathings based on what they would be in Attic, even though we know that other dialects had different accentuation rules from Attic.

  33. Yes, well, I feel Bernard Porter looking over my shoulder even as we speak, perhaps wondering if “John Cowan” is really the name on my passport, though googling me will mostly find references to that no-doubt-excellent bluegrass performer. I note that we also share a love for “Dark as a Dungeon”, though I am a baritone and sing it about three times as fast as he does.

  34. There is an argument to be made for something close to LJ’s old professor’s position, namely that editors shouldn’t print rough breathings in the Greek text in dialects where we know [h] wasn’t pronounced.

    That is not “something close to LJ’s old professor’s position,” but rather a perfectly sensible position that has been expanded to a lunatic principle by LJ’s old professor. Of course there shouldn’t be rough breathings in the Greek text in dialects where we know [h] wasn’t pronounced, but such texts are a tiny portion of Greek literature and are worth mentioning only as a footnote to the general principle.

  35. The smooth without the rough strikes me as bogus all right. In any case, Classical Greek has a standard spelling, like most written languages, which like most written languages makes distinctions that do not exist in speech. (Chiasmus.) And where do you stop? If you are to omit accents and breathings, why not use epichoric (local) alphabets in the first place? And what about lower-case letters, which are far more readable even though utterly inauthentic?

    Nick Nicholas on Greek /h/, (h)eta, and various descendants thereof. A bit from section 5.2: “Of the three forms, the fate of boxed heta, and whether it stays with Old Italic or gets brought in from the cold back into Greek, is moot, since there is no tradition in Greek typography of using boxed heta to differentiate heta from eta. (There was such a tradition in the stones of Delphi; but the business of Unicode is to encode editions, not stones.)” I think he’s wrong about the stones, as shown by the encoding of the Phaistos Disc (which may not even be writing) and Linear B (which is normally written in Latin transliteration anyhow), but what lovely verbal punch.

    Hat (oh, how nice to be able to respond to what has been concurrently written!): That would make more sense if Ionic-Attic weren’t one of them, but it is, as LJ notes. So if that were done, we ought to leave out the breathings altogether except in Homer and the few fully non-psilotic texts available. (What good do they do, anyway? I’ve never understood that. Accents are essential for verse, but breathings? Or am I wrong about when Attic went psilotic?)

  36. That would make more sense if Ionic-Attic weren’t one of them, but it is

    Herodotus’s Ionic, yes, but not Attic.

  37. When does Attic become psilotic, then?

  38. So would it be correct to say that the standard Greek orthography is one which went through a psilotic stage (with eta losing its earlier value of /h/) before being (re-)appropriated by non-psilotics (with their rough breathings)?

  39. When does Attic become psilotic, then?

    Only when it merges into Koine Greek in Hellenistic times, first in what Horrocks calls “more popular varieties” but “eventually affecting even the pronunciation of the most educated speakers by the late Roman/Byzantine period.” If Attic had been psilotic, there would never have been rough breathings to begin with.

  40. That is not “something close to LJ’s old professor’s position,”

    Yes it is: the professor felt that [h] should be transliterated only in dialects where we think it was actually pronounced, and I’m saying it should only be printed in the Greek in such dialects.

    Of course there shouldn’t be rough breathings in the Greek text in dialects where we know [h] wasn’t pronounced, but such texts are a tiny portion of Greek literature and are worth mentioning only as a footnote to the general principle.

    Well, so you and I agree, but most editors don’t: Herodotus is always printed with breathings, and though his text may numerically constitute a tiny portion of Greek literature, that’s not true in terms of its importance or the frequency with which it’s read. Not to mention Homer, whose Ionic would have been psilotic too. But then Homer is in a sense pan-Greek, and the poems seem to have come down largely through an Athenian tradition, so maybe the breathings are more warranted in that case. (But then why not emend his other Ionicisms into Atticisms too? There is of course a “where does it all end” aspect to the question, as JC points out.)

  41. Well, so you and I agree

    I am relieved to hear it!

    but most editors don’t: Herodotus is always printed with breathings

    True, but it’s a minor annoyance; they’re easy to ignore, and I do so when I read Herodotus out loud.

    Homer is in a sense pan-Greek, and the poems seem to have come down largely through an Athenian tradition, so maybe the breathings are more warranted in that case.

    Exactly. One could wish for a variety of dialectal recensions of Homer, but what we have is the Attic one, with breathings and without digammas, and that’s what we’re stuck with. When I was young and foolish I wanted a reconstructed early Homer, but I now realize the folly of that. What we have is what we get.

  42. @John Cowan: Since the Phaistos Disc is a typewritten document (the oldest one that I am aware of), I don’t think it really serves as a counterexample. There certainly must have been other “documents” (or whatever the disc is) created with the same set of stamps; just none of them have survived into modern times.

  43. Well it’s nice to see my esteemed professor’s idea dismissed as “lunatic” and “verging on nonsense”!!

    Alas, I stand by it: Although doing so is now a widespread standard, attaching ‘h’ to a form like ‘erkos’ tethers it to certain periods/dialects of Ancient Greek. Now if OP were transliterating, say, an entire passage of prose in which context showed that rough breathing would have been involved, then ‘erkos’ would indeed be as misguided as you say; in discussion of a single, isolated word/morpheme, devoid of any historical or cultural context (as in the extract above), I see no issue in omitting the ‘h’, as the OP (or their source) has chosen to do.

    Merely my opinion – and I don’t presume to convince anyone here to think otherwise! I just see the criticism as somewhat unfair in this instance.

  44. Trond Engen says:

    ‘Ello, ‘ello, this is the psilot speaking.

  45. David Marjanović says:

    the Phaistos Disc (which may not even be writing)

    Come on. The characters are so similar to Linear A through C that it isn’t hard to find sound values for most of them just by comparison; their number fits a syllabary, too.

    e-qe ku-ri-ti de-ni-qe

  46. Yes, well, we keep trying that with Linear A, and it never works. I personally think the Disc is a board game of the type “if you land on a spiral, lose your turn”.

  47. it’s a minor annoyance

    What’s the internet for if you can’t gripe about minor annoyances? More seriously, though, it would be interesting to know the history behind the different traditions of printing e.g. Herodotus and Sappho — why rough breathings in one case but not the other? I wonder if the difference goes back to antiquity in some way.

    LJ, whatever the arguments for omitting [h] in other cases, you definitely need it in this case: Herodotus would have spoken of apercotropism.

  48. Although doing so is now a widespread standard, attaching ‘h’ to a form like ‘erkos’ tethers it to certain periods/dialects of Ancient Greek.

    Yes, the standard period/dialect, the one that represents Ancient Greek. You might as well leave h out of English words in dictionaries because there are dialects that don’t have it. I’m sorry, but the idea is still nonsense.

  49. Just to say it appears the blogpost you’ve quoted here has been amended, with a nice explanation at the foot of the page.

    What a super find though – many thanks LanguageHat! As I’m more of what you might call an armchair linguist (my days of studying Latin and grammar at school are many decades behind me, alas, and “rough breathing” was certainly new to me!), it’s nice to find what can be quite a daunting, esoteric subject discussed so accessibly and with such humor for a mere mortal like me! Much appreciated.

  50. Thanks for the kind words, Suse, and for alerting me to the addendum, which is indeed nice:

    With grateful thanks to avid HH-er John (no surname supplied, unfortunately!) who emailed to say, quite rightly, that the second Greek root of aphercotropism discussed above should read herkos, not erkos as it did previously. For those of you not up to speed with your Ancient Greek (a minority, surely…) this is to do with “rough breathing”, an Ancient Greek diacritic marker that indicated the vowel in question was preceded by a “h” sound, which should be transliterated into English as an H, and which we had omitted; the post has now been updated accordingly. Apologies for the oversight—a more up to date Dictionary of Ancient Greek has been purchased here at HaggardHawks HQ. The other has been unceremoniously banished to the back of the cupboard.

  51. I feel obliged to comment on this post as it’s one of a few I’ve read online recently that frustrates me, for one simple reason: I see blogging, and in particular language blogging, as something of a community. Collaborative and supportive, sharing tips and interests, as often evidenced by the number of fellow bloggers who crop up in others’ comments sections. Consequently posts like this – that point fingers, highlight mistakes, critique, or otherwise belittle other blogs of a similar vein and spirit (“one can and should be aware of this stuff”, “a site focused on words and etymology should have done a better job”) – infuriate me enormously.

    If you spot a problem on another blog, is that in itself ammunition for a blogpost? Why not comment on the original post, rather than writing a haughty response, presumably content to leave the original poster and their own readership ignorant of their oversight? Pointing out the error there and then would have been to everyone’s benefit; leaving it standing, and writing a blogpost relishing another’s mistake, smacks of competitiveness and oneupmanship. (That said, I see in this instance the OP has amended it anyway.)

    Apologies in advance LH, as this is by no means an issue unique to you and your wonderful blog, but this kind of thing annoys me greatly – a consequence, I fear, of seeing far too much of this kind of thing after years of working in academia!!

  52. Part of the remit of this blog is to correct errors about language perpetrated elsewhere; I try not to be “haughty” about it, and I don’t think I was here, but I’m not going to let them pass in silence. To err is human, but the truth must out.

  53. I don’t think you were harsh either, certainly not by modern standards or Internet standards, and certainly not by 18C standards. But I give you this demonstration of “elegant weapons from a more civilized age”:

    As [Harriet Vane and Miss Lydgate] came up, [Miss de Vine] was saying to Miss Gubbins: “I entirely agree that a historian ought to be precise in detail; but unless you take all the characters and circumstances concerned into account, you are reckoning without the facts. The proportions and relations of things are just as much facts as the things themselves; and if you get those wrong, you falsify the picture really seriously.”

    Here, just as Miss Gubbins, with a mulish look in her eye, was preparing to expostulate, Miss de Vine caught sight of the English tutor and excused herself. Miss Gubbins was obliged to withdraw; Harriet observed with regret that she had untidy hair, an ill-kept skin and a large white safety-pin securing her hood to her dress.

    “Dear me!” said Miss de Vine, “who is that very uninspired young woman? She seems very much annoyed with my review of Mr. Winterlake’s book on Essex. She seems to think I ought to have torn the poor man to pieces because of a trifling error of a few months made in dealing, quite incidentally, with the early history of the Bacon family. She attaches no importance to the fact that the book is the most illuminating and scholarly handling to date of the interactions of two most enigmatic characters.”

    “Bacon family history is her subject,” said Miss Lydgate, “so I’ve no doubt she feels strongly about it.”

    “It’s a great mistake to see one’s own subject out of proportion to its background. The error should be corrected, of course; I did correct it — in a private letter to the author, which is the proper medium for trifling corrections. But the man has, I feel sure, got hold of the master-key to the situation between those two men, and in so doing he has got hold of a fact of genuine importance.”

         — Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

    See the link above for the preceding text. As Nieves Mathews says in her 1996 book on Bacon, it is a pity we cannot read Winterlake, for the subject has not been treated in detail by anyone else.

  54. David Marjanović says:

    This isn’t quite the thread I was looking for, I think, but I can’t find the right one, and this one is close enough:

    It reminds me of an old Teach Yourself Greek I used to have whose author felt that accent marks were useless and nobody pronounced them, and so left them out entirely.

    Googling for fimbrati to see if it really is a technical term in anatomy, I found this, where a passage from Herodotus is cited without any diacritic marks and translated not into English, which the rest of the book is in, but into Latin. The book is “a new edition” from 1825 and on the very first numbered page explains two more stripped Greek words by translating them into Latin (and badly at that).

  55. The Latin is badly typeset, too — induli should be induti.

  56. Even in 1825 they needed better copyeditors!

  57. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    It reminds me of an old Teach Yourself Greek I used to have whose author felt that accent marks were useless and nobody pronounced them, and so left them out entirely.
    I have three of these books, in fact, for Greek, New Testament Greek, and Modern Greek. The first two books lack the accents, but the third, the Modern Greek, is polytonic! (Copyright 1962, before the reform)

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