No technology today — but, hey, where does that word “technology” come from, anyway?

I’m on this politics/technology/etc. mailing list. A recent poster noted that Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview will Bill O’Reilly on the subject of, of all things, the Boy Scouts, used the word “phraseology”. He was speaking in reference to “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

Anyway, the poster noted that “phraseology” looks like it should mean “the study of phrases”, but it doesn’t, it means “the meanings of words in phrases”. I was curious about that, so, I looked it up in the OED.

Turns out that there are two distinct camps of -logy words in English. There are those in which -logy means “the study of”, like technology, psychology, entomology, geology, theology, astrology, and so on. And then there are those in which -logy means “the words”, like eulogy (nice words), trilogy (three words), ideology (idea words), tautology (the same words), and so on.

Both come from the same Greek root, λογος meaning “saying”, or “words” or “discourse”. It’s a natural progression from “theology” = “saying words about the gods” to “the study of the gods”, so that clears up that.

“Astrology” and “theology” are Anglicizations of real ancient Greek words. Ideally, we’d form new -logies by using only Greek prefixes — zoology, geology, and so on. But as we’ve discussed here before, English is a slatternly language; we cheerfully hook up Latin-derived (and otherwise!) prefixes to -logy all the frickin’ time. (And any grammarian who complains about it can tell me the etymology of “grammarian” and then be quiet.)

Here’s another interesting fact about -logies: you can guess how old an -logy word is in English by whether someone who studies it is a -logist (modern) or -logian (old), or -logue (quite old), -loger (realy very old indeed).

Try it! People who study religion are theologians, or, now obsolete, theologues, but never theologists. People who stick to a rigid ideology are sometimes ideologues, but these days more often ideologists. People who study insects are entomologists, not entomologians, entomologers, or entomologues; entomology is a relatively new -logy word. Doesn’t “entomologian” sound a lot more archaic? People who study astrology are astrologers, a very old word indeed, entering English in the 14th century. New -logy words — and we’re getting new ones all the time — practically always use -logist these days, and lots of the old ones are transmogrifying into -logist, if they haven’t already.

Comments (12)

  1. mike says:

    >practically always use -logist these days,

    In linguistic terms, the "-logist" suffix is therefore said to be a "productive morpheme," ie, an active part of the grammar. The other suffixes you note are no longer productive, meaning they are no longer in use in the language at large to form new terms. (Although people will sometimes deliberately use non-productive morpheme for effect — I refer to the woman who reads my prose as my "editrix," and the collection of said women are my "editrices.")

    BTW, I’m not sure I agree with the comment "but these days more often ideologists"; "ideologue" is, AFAIK, a term still very much in use.

  2. Eric Lippert says:

    A quick search shows that you’re correct. "Ideologue" shows up more than "ideologist" in a google news search by 803 to 28.

  3. Eric Lippert says:

    Indeed, using unproductive morphemes is quite amusing.

    The charming young woman sitting next to me in the car giving directions is my navigatrix — unless she’s telling me I’m going to miss my exit and please slow down, in which case she’s my nagavatrix.

    You occasionally hear old-time hacker’s slang using the now-unproductive -en plural (children, brethren) usually on words that rhyme with "oxen": one x-box, two x-boxen. One VAX workstation, two VAXen.

    And now that I look it up, wow, -en was used all over the place. To form plurals (oxen), to verb an adjective (moisten), to verb a noun (threaten), to express the concept of "made from" (wooden), to feminize a masculine noun (vixen) and to form a diminutive (kitten).

  4. jt says:

    Funny — I was on out on a First Date last week and when she said she had to go to the bathroom I quipped "Hmmmm, nobody told me you were a urinatrix!"

  5. mike says:


    Clever! 🙂

    As for the prevalence of -en, I think what we have is a general Germanic (possibly IE?) declensional/conjugational preference for -n. I think the -e part of -en is a bit of a red herring, as the -e basically represents an unstressed vowel. I suspect (not actually doing the work here) that if we dug into the etymology of the examples you cite, we’d find more vocalic distinction in the originals of the various examples. Possibly also sightly more complex endings than simple -n.

  6. Eric Lippert says:

    What we have is pretty much six different origins colliding into one suffix, so yes, your conjecture seems to be borne out.

    We’ve got kitoun, dating from 1377 and oxan, also from the 14th century. The "form of" morpheme was reduced to "-n" when following "r", so you’d have wooden, glassen, papern. The verbing-an-adjective sense coes from Old English/Old Norse -ian — "fasten" would have originally been "fæstnian". And the diminutive form comes from Greek -ino (which is only found in modern English in nuclear physics — neutrino, for example.)

  7. Jon Peltier says:

    How about my former career, not exactly an ology: Metallurgy. We are known as Metallurgists in one of two pronunciations (Americans emphasize the first syllable, Brits the second). The -ist ending indicates "new" in your scheme, although metallurgy has been practiced almost as long as agriculture.

    "And now that I look it up, wow, -en was used all over the place."

    I guess the French were unable to remove everything Germanic when they tried to transform the English language. What they accomplished was combining two incompatible structures, making it the hardest language to learn, but also the most flexible, evidenced by all the foreign words English has adopted.

    And please don’t remind me I’m completely full of it. Thanks.

    – Jon

  8. Samrobb says:

    (Wow, another metallurgist-turned-programmer. Not quite as rare as hen’s teeth, then…)

    Metallurgy has been *practiced* a good long time, but I don’t think it has always been recognized as a distinct field of study. The -ist ending here would be an indication of when the word was coined, but not neccesarily the age of the profession it describes.

    BTW: as someone studying Koine Greek right now, this was an incredibly entertaining and interesting topic. Thanks, Eric.

  9. Eric Lippert says:

    "Metallurgy" is indeed an ancient Greek word, and both "metallurgy" and "metallurgist" have been in English for a long time.

    The -urgy suffix doesn’t seem to ever have been nearly as historically productive as -logy. It’s not listed as a suffix in the OED, and the only other -urgy word that immediately comes to mind is "dramaturgy", another ancient Greek word. Both "dramaturge" and "dramaturgist" are acceptable, though I tend to hear the former more often.

  10. Ben Fulton says:

    In Shakespeare’s day a debate was already going around about how pure the English language could be kept (the Inkhorn controversy). It’s something of a shame it turned out the way it did; I think I would have preferred the less pretentious-seeming "birdlore" and "wordlore" over "ornithology" and "etymology".

  11. Eric Brown says:

    Ben – you might want to look up the story "Uncleftish Beholding", by Poul Anderson; it’s a short treatise on Atomic Theory, as it might read if English used only Anglo-Saxon roots. For example, you have "round-around board of the firststuffs" rather than "periodic table of the elements", and so forth.

    It’s quite alien, really.

  12. Eric Lippert says:

    Another amusing thing you can do along these lines is read "The Lord of the Rings".

    Tolkien was of course a professionaly philologist and knew the derivations of English words inside out. From each character’s vocabulary, diction and syntax you can deduce their age, their social status, and — most interesting to Tolkien — the relationship of the speaker’s native language to the various root languages of Middle Earth.

    The Rohirrim, for example, speak "English" almost entirely using words with Anglo-Saxon roots, because the Rohirrim are the Middle-Earth analogues of the Anglo-Saxons. Even the supporting narrative text becomes richer in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic words when Rohan is at the forefront.

    The Gondorians, conversely, speak in a more Latinate manner, befitting their status as an ancient civilization analogous to Rome (or, better, mythical Atlantis.)