Lars Mathiesen wrote me: “I admit that I never thought about the number declension in Archaea (bacteria), but somebody did (second graf).” The graf in question (by Hannah Devlin in the Graun):

Then, the theory goes, a rogue archaeon gobbled up a bacterium to create an entirely new type of cell that would go on to form the basis of all complex life on Earth, from plants to humans.

One of those words that makes you go “Huh”; the OED says:

Etymology: < scientific Latin Archaeon (see quot. 1990), singular form corresponding to Archaea Archaea n.

A member of the Archaea; an archaebacterium.
The plural form is usually supplied by Archaea n.

1990 Proc. National Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87 5788 (title) HMf, a DNA-binding protein isolated from the hyperthermophilic archaeon Methanothermus fervidus, is most closely related to histones.
2001 FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 196 129 M[ethanobrevibacter] oralis was found to be the predominant archaeon in the subgingival dental plaque.

I have to admit I didn’t realize the taxon was so new; first cite for Archaea:

1990 C. R. Woese et al. in Proc. National Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 87 4576 We propose that a formal system of organisms be established in which above the level of kingdom there exists a new taxon called a ‘domain’. Life on this planet would then be seen as comprising three domains, the Bacteria, the Archaea, and the Eucarya, each containing two or more kingdoms.

And why do they give the author for that last quote but not for the 1990 cite for archaeon, from the same article? Sometimes the OED baffles me.


  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    One of those words that makes you go “Huh”

    Not me it doesn’t. It’s what I say.

  2. Well, I guess you’re used to specialist biological terms. It made me go “Huh,” anyway.

  3. The term “Archaea” is new, but the taxon itself is a bit older. It was originally called “Archaebacteria.”

    OED, s.v. “Archaebacterium”:

    1977 Woese & Fox in Proc. National Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 74 5089/1 There exists a third kingdom which, to date, is represented solely by the methanogenic bacteria, a relatively unknown class of anaerobes that possess a unique metabolism based on the reduction of carbon dioxide to methane… The apparent antiquity of the methanogenic prototype plus the fact that it seems well suited to the type of environment presumed to exist on earth 3–4 billion years ago lead us tentatively to name this urkingdom the archaebacteria.

  4. Ah, thanks. Biology is (obviously) not one of the fields I till.

  5. My instinct would have been to use “archaeum” (like “bacterium”) rather than “archaeon” as the singular of “archaea” (I also feel like it shouldn’t be capitalized, because it seems to be being used as a common noun). I wonder what the relative frequencies of “archaeum” and “archaeon” are.

  6. Lars Mathiesen says

    I see I implied the wrong spellng for Archaebacteria — is that the expected Neolatin form for a compound of classical Greek ἀρχαῖος and βακτήριον? Ἀρχαιοβακτήρια? (I’m not sure anymore, but I think it always had the linking -ο- in my internal voice).

    And even though archaeon has been a word for 30 years this was the first time I encountered it, so I wondered if someone had just remembered a bit of their Greek and the Guardian editor let it through. Clearly it’s been too long since I read the WP page on Archaea.

  7. Lars Mathiesen says

    archaeum — I checked a 2007 version of the WP article, and it had Archaeum, Archaean, Archaeon as the possible singular forms, where the current version only has archaeon. But given Hat’s 1990 quotes it looks like there was a consensus in the research community at that time that is now canon.

    But archaeon is a mixed form, isn’t is? G archaion or L archaeum. DM, what are your people up to?

    Also, genus Cafeteria. With its own macrovirus plague and a maverick virophage virus to prey on those. And so ad infinitum, though less than 20k base pairs may be hitting some sort of limit.

    (It is not clear to me that the verse is original with AdM, but if it’s a quote, nobody seems to know from whom. It’s not totally apposite to the subject (atoms as worlds) that he is riffing on which makes me think it could have been a well known ditty in 1815 and was just fun to include).

  8. Lars Mathiesen says

    (After editing timeout) I don’t know where I got 1815 from. 1863 was the publication year of the commented-on book, and A Budget of Paradoxes was posthumously published in 1872, so the text must have been written between those dates..

  9. Latin words taken from Greek can end in -on: for example, we have phenomenon rather than either phainomenon or phenomenum. I just felt that in this particular case, -um seemed more natural. “Archaean” would be the singular of a related noun ending in the anglicized suffix -an (like how the noun “eukaryote” has an anglicized ending), not a latinate singular form directly corresponding to the latinate plural form Archaea.

    I just noticed that the latinate domain name used for eukaryotes seems to be variable. Woese, Kandler and Wheelis 1990 proposes the name “Eucarya” (spelled with a C; a neuter plural form that would correspond with singular “eucaryon/eucaryum”), and references “Eucaryotae” as an earlier proposed name for a kingdom (which is a plural form corresponding to the Greek-type masculine singular form “eucaryotes”, the form that is the basis of English “eukaryote”).

    But the Wikipedia article “Eukaryote” uses the K spelling “Eukarya” and lists it as an alternative to the name “Eukaryota”. I’m not sure that “Eukaryota” is correctly formed in either Greek or Latin: as far as I know, the Greek masculine suffix -tes has no corresponding neuter suffix -ton/-tum. To me, “Eukaryota” looks like may have been created by combining English “eukaryote” + Greek/Latin neuter plural -a.

  10. Roberto Batisti says

    @ Lars Mathiesen:

    Well, archaeon is the transliteration of the Greek form, of the kind a Roman author would arguably have used, especially if he was just code-switching (albeit without character-switching) and not using an actual borrowing (in which case we would expect -aeum – though not necessarily in poetry, where you find forms like acc. sg. Hectora beside Hectorem for stylistic or metrical reasons).

    So it *is* a mix, in a sense, but not one without antecedents in historical practice.

    I think that scientific (Graeco-)Latin has produced much more monstruous hybrids from the point of view of Classical norm.

    Re: Archaebacteria for Archaeobacteria – possibly by analogy with παλαι- (palaeo-) as 1st compound member beside usual παλαιο- (palaeo-)? The latter etymologically justified by the existence of adv. πάλαι beside (in fact, as the derivational basis of) adj. παλαιός (cf. also comp. παλαί-τερος, sup. παλαί-τατος). But there was no **ἄρχαι beside ἀρχαῖος, nor **ἀρχαίτερος/-αίτατος, or 1st cpd. member **ἀρχαι-.

  11. The rogue archaeon attacked the bacterion, but the vibrion was quicker…

  12. The 1990 quotes are from the same journal but not from the same article: Archaea is (C R Woese, O Kandler, and M L Wheelis) and archaeon is (K Sandman, J A Krzycki, B Dobrinski, R Lurz, and J N Reeve). Still doesn’t explain why they omit the authors from one.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    It would have been more convenient (but not very practical) if genera were named in Provençal, because Provençal nouns are invariant for number (uniquely among Western European languages, I think). That’s if you follow Frédéric Mistral’s orthography, but nowadays people more and more use an orthography that makes Provençal look like a bastard form of Catalan, and add a pointless silent s on the end of a noun to make it plural.

  14. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Roberto Batisti:

    Even if adjective πάλαι was used for compounding, I was guessing that -αι would be a diphthong that would need a linking -o- — it looks like thematic endings are removed when compounding so πάλαι and παλαιός would give the same result. Similarly for ἀρχαῖος, or is that a different formation?

    I tried to find words starting with pale- or palae- without the linking -o-, no success, but that’s probably only indicative of my searching skills.

  15. “… lead us tentatively to name this urkingdom the archaebacteria.”

    IMHO, “urkingdom” needs a hyphen; at first it looks like “URK ing dom”.

  16. John Cowan says

    Urkingdom: one of those curious English town names so common in East Anglia.

    In Modern Greek παλαιο- has split into two forms: παλαιο- /paleo-/ ‘old’ borrowed from Puristic, and inherited παλιο- /paljo-/ ‘decrepit’ > nasty’. Greek monopthongized all its vowels but then turned unstressed front vowels in hiatus into /j/ in native words, however, borrowings keep the hiatus. Which is what makes the difference, Nick Nicholas tells us, between παλαιοκομμουνιστής ‘palaeocommunist’ and παλιοκομμούνι ‘dirty commie’.

  17. And so ad infinitum, [. . . ]

    (It is not clear to me that the verse is original with AdM, but if it’s a quote, nobody seems to know from whom. It’s not totally apposite to the subject (atoms as worlds) that he is riffing on

    It looks like you’re asking who is the original author of the fleas biting fleas verse — if so, the answer is Jonathan Swift, 1733 (part of the first two verses, at least — there is indeed some riffing going on).

  18. Lars Mathiesen says

    Thanks. I found de Morgan instead of Swift because I searched for little instead of smaller, and once there there are so many little differences that it’s hard to find the Vorlage. A rhyme between flea and prey, for one thing. I’m sure nobody reading de Morgan in 1872 would miss the reference.

    Paradox for de Morgan seems to mean “something I disagree with.” If you are in the mood for putdowns, he’s your man.

  19. John Cowan says

    In A Budget of Paradoxes De Morgan says: “I use the word in the old sense: a paradox is something which is apart from general opinion, either in subject-matter, method, or conclusion.” So it’s not something he disagrees with but something that almost nobody agrees with.

    Quine divides paradoxes into three categories:

    (a) the veridical paradoxes, where a statement is generally thought to be false turns out to be true (Frederick the pirate really has had only five birthdays even though he is 21, because he was born on February 29);

    (b) the falsidical paradoxes, where a statement that is generally thought to be false turns out in fact to be false because of a failure in the demonstration such as a hidden division by zero;

    (c) the antinomies, where a statement is neither true nor false (“This sentence is false”) because sound reasoning leads to a contradiction;

    Since Quine’s time, we also have:

    (d) the dialetheia, where a statement is both true and false, either in a Zen sense or using a paraconsistent logic. Quine (and Aristotle) did not believe in the existence of dialetheia.

  20. David Marjanović says

    And why do they give the author for that last quote but not for the 1990 cite for archaeon, from the same article?

    4576 and 5788 are page numbers. PNAS has a new issue every week, but a volume equates a whole year, so the page numbers (continuous in each volume as in practically all scientific journals) always run into the five digits, at least sometimes even six.

    We propose that a formal system of organisms be established in which above the level of kingdom there exists a new taxon called a ‘domain’.

    Gaaah, what a screaming misuse of the term taxon. It refers to the actual group of actual organisms, not to the rank (“level”) of the name of that group.


    This use of ur-, whatever exactly it was, has not caught on.

    DM, what are your people up to?

    The Occident has Declined and Fallen. Most of us never learned Latin, let alone Greek, and it shows again and again and again. But this particular case was most likely intended as a Classical transcription rather than a full latinization.

    I’m not sure that “Eukaryota” is correctly formed in either Greek or Latin: as far as I know, the Greek masculine suffix -tes has no corresponding neuter suffix -ton/-tum.

    The tradition of neuter taxon names comes from zoology, where most were originally adjectives agreeing with Animalia. Within plants, though, most are adjectives agreeing with Plantae.

  21. The Occident has Declined and Fallen.
    The problem is not that the West has declined, it is that the West doesn’t know how to correctly decline anymore.

  22. David Marjanović says

    Day saved, I’m going to bed.

  23. Stu Clayton says

    “Day saved, and so to bed”. A thankful nod to Fortuna has been added to Pepys’ formula. A note of exhausted thanks.

  24. This statement is both true and false,
    Which is some sort of paradox.

    And why do they give the author for that last quote but not for the 1990 cite for archaeon, from the same article?

    One without an author is from the title, which in some publications is not supplied by the author, but by a nameless editor. But, one hopes, PNAS is not one of those publications.

  25. David Marjanović says

    Indeed not. Scientific journals never do that.

  26. One of those words that makes you go “Huh”

    Shouldn’t that be

    “One of those words that make you go “Huh””

    (I am such a pedant)

  27. Yeah, I guess it should. Huh.

  28. I think that scientific (Graeco-)Latin has produced much more monstruous hybrids from the point of view of Classical norm.

    In The Invention of Science, David Wootton mentions resistance to the acceptance of the term “scientist”, coined by William Whewell in 1833, for precisely the reason of its being a “monstruous hybrid”:

    The geologist Adam Sedgwick (d.1873) scribbled in the margin of his copy of a book by Whewell, ‘[B]etter to die of this want than to bestialize our tongue by such barbarisms.’ As late as 1874 Thomas Huxley (‘Darwin’s bulldog’) insisted that no one with any respect for the English language would use the word, which he found ‘about as pleasing a word as”Electrocution”‘.

  29. So he attacked “scientist” by saying “bestialize”? Hmm.

  30. Why it took so long? The word is basic enough and could have been in use much earlier.

    Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came scientists from the east to Jerusalem…

  31. PlasticPaddy says

    Italian has scienziati and literati. Most literati do not recognise their servile origin, which is only evident when they denounce the scienziati for their hubris.

  32. Why it took so long?

    There were other words/terms used, of course; Wootton speculates that Whewell may have wanted a gender-neutral term in place of the then-popular “man of science” because he was writing a review of a book by the (female) science writer Mary Somerville.

  33. Before, there were sophists, alchemists, and natural philosophers. But it would be cool to call present-day scientists magi. Magister they tell me, is etymologically unrelated, but it would be a nice confluence of meanings if it were become the title of a fully-realized scientist (I mean, magus). Doctor then would be relegated to a simple teacher (where American professors are now) or rather to a relatively high-level teacher, above docent. As it stands now, teaching and research titles are somewhat confused, in America, beyond assistant professor/Ph.D. level.

  34. D.O.: I don’t like being addressed by students as “Doctor,” although “Professor” is generally fine. (Different institutions have different cultural expectations about what to call faculty, and unfortunately, here “Doctor” is the norm.) However, maybe when I introduce myself at the beginning of a semester, I will suggest to the students that, if they wish, they may address me as “Magus.”

  35. Oh, please do!

  36. Lars Mathiesen says

    In re linking -o-: Maybe people don’t realize that that’s what it is, because so many of the members of Neogreek compounds look like it belongs to the elements (or it disappears into the initial vowel of the second element): βίος + λόγος = bi-o-logy, cf geront-o-logy where oblique γέροντ- doesn’t have a thematic vowel.

    Actually the -o- attaches to both sides! bio-, zoo-, geronto- and -ology. If you squint archaeology looks like archae- + -ology, hence archaebacteria?

    Now what’s the deal with architect? (Verb root in the first element, I know, but τέκτων is still the head).

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    There appear to be two Greek prefixes, I. E. archai= beginning and archi = chief, leader.. so architect = master builder and archaeology is study of beginnings.

  38. Lars Mathiesen says

    @Plastic Paddy,

    yes, but why doesn’t architect have a linking omicron? (It’s the same root in both prefixes, begin/initial/first/leader/ruler, but that wasn’t the point).

  39. PlasticPaddy says

    Is the explanation that Greek archi is treated different from Greek archai in English compounds? Compare Latin architectus and archaicus. Or are the English words just extending a Latin convention for differentiating the prefixes?

  40. As a rule, the linking vowel is the stem vowel*; for stems ending in a consonant, the -o- is often inserted as a linking vowel. The prefix archi- ends in a vowel, so doesn’t need a linking -o-. In the compounds with archaeo-, the -o- is part of the first element (Greek stem archaio-s); compounds with archae- are due to mistaken analysis of the rules and are simply malformed from the point of view of Classical Greek grammar.
    * For stems in -a / -ē, the compound vowel also is -o-, a rule going back to PIE, because these stems originally were collective nouns based on o-stems.

  41. Lars Mathiesen says

    I think the difference goes back to Classical Greek. Architecton is classical (meaning head builder as you say). I don’t know if any classical compounds in archai-o- are attested, though.

  42. Lars Mathiesen says


    I was misled by a textbook I googled up, then — it claimed that the thematic ‘o’ was removed if present and a ‘new’ linking one always inserted. Your version makes more sense given architect.

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