The Word


How we came to love our unholy creations

By Jan Freeman
April 25, 2010

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Thousands were running last Monday, and thousands more cheered the racers in the 114th Boston Marathon, but my holiday observance was a sprint to the reference library, as I tried to produce a timely answer to a reader’s question about the word marathon.

Familiar as the word is in these parts, there was a lot I didn’t know about it: for instance, that even though the race is named for the Greek town where Pheidippides’s legendary run began (a town whose name means “fennel”!), our marathon is a recent usage. It didn’t become the name of a race until 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games were staged. And once recast as an English word, marathon was instantly applied to other endurance contests: The Oxford English Dictionary records a 1908 potato peeling contest called the Murphy Marathon.

Nothing controversial in the tale so far. But then I clicked on the dictionary’s link to -ATHON, and found myself in another battle of marathon. The word had eventually led to danceathons and talkathons, and language scholars were not happy about it. This new suffix-ish athon, said the OED’s note, had been “barbarously extracted” from marathon.

Why “barbarously?” To old-fashioned scholars, talkathon and walkathon were doubly offensive Frankenwords: Not only did they corrupt native English words by adding a Greek ending, but (in this case) they butchered the Greek word too, lopping off a chunk of it that wasn’t a suffix at all.

In our era, when word-blending (both commercial and recreational) is everywhere, this objection may sound quaint. Who cares where the parts of octomom, cybersquat, or Coolatta come from, or whether their ancestry is harmonious?

But to the language watchdogs of the 18th and 19th centuries, trying to hold back the tide of innovation, it was a big deal — or, at least, one convenient weapon for smacking upstart coinages. If a new word seemed unlovely, it was convenient to be able to dismiss it as a “barbarism” — a label first applied to unorthodox blends in 1776.

And the growing middle classes, hungry for advice, were unlikely to talk back. The usage rule sounded so authoritative: Greek- and Latin-derived words should not be blended, and only in some cases could English words take classical endings. Drinkable and goddess were grandfathered in, as was grandfather itself. But starvation — coined in 1775, and only the second such combination, after flirtation — was “a ridiculous hybrid,” the unholy marriage of the English verb starve, with its Germanic root, and a Latin suffix.

Those usage gurus who could flaunt their Greek and Latin did, and those who couldn’t copied them. Richard Grant White, a popular 19th-century usage maven, declared that -ize, a Greek suffix, could not be attached to English words. “Among the monsters in this form [is] jeopardize — a foolish and intolerable word,” he wrote.

Another abomination was electrocute: Bad enough that execute, which (as even your computer knows) properly means “carry out,” had been drafted as a synonym for “put to death.” But electrocute treated “cute” as if it were a separable part meaning “to kill,” when in fact, like the “athon” of marathon, it’s “merely a fragment of the Latin secutus (compare persecute),” as an unhappy rhetorician explained in 1906.

Automobile, too, was an uncouth coinage, but the invention was so successful that the word outran the 19th-century coinage censors. It did, however, inspire a classicist’s joke that’s been repeated ever since: That the machine couldn’t possibly exist, since anyone smart enough to invent it would know that it had to be called an autokinetikon (or, in Latin, an ipsomobile).

As the motorcar century chugged on, the Latinists’ power dwindled. “The time has passed when new trade-names were coined, as a rule, in orthodox ways from Greek and Latin roots,” wrote Louise Pound in a 1923 article surveying the Phiteezi shoes, Health-O-Meter scales, and Slendaform diet aids of the day.

By 1926, H.W. Fowler was ready to concede that such neologisms were unstoppable. The classically educated few could hardly expect to have their taste consulted by the monolingual masses. “That barbarisms should exist is a pity,” he said, but “to expend much energy on denouncing [them] is a waste.” Still, he allowed himself to denounce a few, including bureaucrat, climactic, and Pleistocene.

By the mid-20th century, however, the purity objection had all but evaporated. When workaholic and chocoholic came along, most teachers didn’t tell us that they were ill-formed blends, since the original Arabic word division is al-cohol, or “the kohl.” (Yes, alcohol meant eye makeup long before it meant rum or disinfectant.) We had no problem turning most of panorama into a suffix for the convenience of Bowl-O-Rama, or borrowing the surgeon’s -ectomy for humorectomy.

Today the air is thicker than ever with such verbal fireflies, though most will glow only briefly. And what’s “acceptable” has become a matter of taste — or age. We may groan at irritainment and adultescent, but miniskirt and glitterati, now over 50, are old friends. Like our censorious forebears, we love some blends and hate others, call some adorable and others ugly. What we don’t do, in the 21st century, is condemn them as crimes against Latin and Greek.

Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is; she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (