Sunday, May 4, 2014


This post is what might be called the low down on the Greek prefix, in Latin format, usually referred to as cata-. The background was playing a game of MY WORD with Brigitte. We have devised, ages ago, sheets on which you can play words with up to 11 letters in length. Brigitte chose the word catachresis to challenge me—in the process rather flattering me, and flattering because she assumed that I knew the word. Well, I hadn’t heard it before, at least not consciously. Consequently I failed to get it. This word subsequently got us to wondering what that prefix, cata-, actually means in its many uses. Herewith a small tabulation of some of them, the majority derived from the Greek—and the two at the bottom having another origin:

Well, the most common meaning of cata- is “down,” as in “down to” and “down from.” A downward movement can be interpreted as from a desirable “height” to something less exalted and “low”; therefore it can also mean “against” and “wrong.” Wrong is used in catachresis—where the second half of the word means “usage” in Greek; the dictionary definition is “use of the wrong word for the [given] context.”  Now if we go down all the way, one might say, one has gone down “completely,” which is another use of cata- in language. A catalogue is a complete list and catalysis is the complete dissolution of one chemical in the presence of another.

In my list catalepsy is a seizure; people who have one tend to fall down; the Greek uses the word lambanein for the second part, which means “to take down”: catalepsy is that which “takes you down.” Cataract originally meant, and still means, a waterfall; today is can also mean the “break down” of the lenses of our eyes. Etymologically speaking, a catastrophe is just a down-turn in events; the word has a much worse connotation because we’re so attached to the status quo.

Cathode was a word coined in the nineteenth century to indicate the path of an electric current; it was supposed to “go downward”; hode in Greek means “way.” The last two on my list are also curious. A cathedral is the “seat” of a bishop, and when the bishop assumes his office, he has to sit down. That notion gave its name to what we would call an elaborately built church. Category, finally, originally meant a contentions harangue in the public forum, the agora. Therefore it was “an attack (derived from the meaning of “against”) in the Agora. But by Aristotle’s time, already, it had taken on the milder meaning of a subdivision in a system of classification.

The Online Etymological Dictionary, my own sole source of linguistic knowledge, tells me that catacomb is not “down in the tomb.” In that usage cata- is thought to mean “among,” thus “among the tombs.” I assume that this Latin usage was an extension of the Greek meaning of “down.” And last, the cata- in catamaram carries not even a whiff of Greek. It comes from the Tamil word kattu, meaning “tied.” Maram means “wood” or “tree.” Those sleek metal or plastic catamarans do not deserve their name…


  1. 'Cathode' is a particularly interesting one. According to some stories, Faraday's original suggestions for cathode and anode were 'eastode' and 'westode'; Faraday was a working-class man without a fancy education and had very limited Greek. But he was also friends with William Whewell, who had done a lot of work on how scientific terminology could be improved, and Whewell suggested cathode and anode (as well as cation and anion) as words that would be less odd-sounding while still being recognizable to most people -- most educated people at the time, unlike Faraday, would have had at least some elementary Greek.

    1. Thanks for that, Brandon. That naming is also one might say an example of the extensions of the Greek language to cover modern discoveries. Curious how calling things by modern names is somehow not quite acceptable. If a word is drawn from modern sources, like the "quark," it must come from an obscure or humorous source.


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