ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES and other words

While Charles Darwin gave us the theory of evolution in his ground-breaking work On the Origin of Species, the subject of this blog is etymology: the origin of words and how their meanings have changed over time.

This blog is not intended as an academic treatise on etymology. It does not give every single meaning of the words given below. It is intended as a light and playful skim of the surface rather a plunge into the depths of the meaning, history and origin of words.

On the origin of species and other words

on the origin of species

On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, 1809-1882


The noun species comes from Latin species, which meant ‘a particular sort, kind or type’. In Late Latin, it also came to mean ‘a special case’. The Latin noun is related to the verb specere ‘to look at, to see, behold’. From the 1550s, species came to mean ‘appearance, outward form’, and by the 1560s it had evolved to mean ‘distinct class (of something) based on common characteristics’. The biological meaning of ‘species’ dates from c. 1600. The term ‘endangered species’ appears to date from 1964.

Did you know? The word ‘spice’ derives from the same Late Latin word species.

…and now we go alphabetical

Now that we’ve looked into ‘on the origin of species’, we’ll look at some other words.

I’ve chosen the theme of prefixes and compounds. A prefix is a group of letters, with a specific meaning, added to the beginning of a word to create a new word with a different meaning. The prefix un-, for example, added to the beginning of happy, changes the meaning to, in this case, its opposite: unhappy. Compound nouns comprise some or all of the letters of two separate words in combination.


This prefix derives from the Latin ante, meaning ‘before (in place or time), in front of, against’.

Some examples:

antechamber – a chamber, room or apartment through which access is gained to a principal apartment

antenatal – before birth

ante meridiem – before midday. Most of us are familiar with the abbreviated form am, which is used in the example sentence below.

Sentences using the above:

The king’s youthful groom of the stool looked up when the queen entered the antechamber on her way to the king’s private apartments.

The young parents attended antenatal classes to be ready for the birth of their twins.

‘We leave at 11 am,’ Dot’s husband announced.

What’s the opposite of ante-?

The opposite of ante- is post-.


bene- comes from the Latin adverb meaning ‘well, in the right way, honourably, properly’.

Some examples:

beneficence – kind, charitable

benefit – something beneficial or advantageous

benign – kind, favourable

Sentences using the above:

The king’s beneficence was appreciated by all his medieval subjects.

A benefit of working from home is you don’t get caught in peak traffic.

He has a benign smile.

What’s the opposite of bene-?

The opposite of bene- is mal-.


This prefix comes from the Greek word kardia meaning ‘heart’.cardio

Some examples:

cardiologist – heart specialist

cardiometer – a device to measure the strength of the heart

cardiopulmonary – relating to the heart and the lungs

Sentences using the above:

The cardiologist measured the strength of Sue’s heart using a cardiometer.

The conference addressed specialists in cardiopulmonary diseases.

dec- and deca-

These prefixes derive from the Greek word deka meaning ‘ten’.

Some examples:

Decalogue – the Ten Commandments. The word originally came from the Greek dekalogos; later, in Latin, this became decalogus.

decagon – a polygon with ten angles and ten sides

decaspermal – a botanical term meaning a plant that contains ten seeds

Sentences using the above:

God handed Moses the Decalogue on Mt Sinai.

A polygon with ten sides is called a decagon.

The berry of the plant Psidium decaspermum is decaspermal.


This is a shortening of ecology or ecological and refers to the environment and its relationship with human beings. It originates from the Greek oikos for ‘house, dwelling’.

Some examples:

ecofreak (that’s a good one!) – someone who is fanatical about conservation of the environment

ecology – the branch of biology dealing with the relationship of living organisms to their environment (Greek eco- + logos ‘word, reason, discourse’)

eco-friendly – causing limited or no damage to the environment

Sentence using the above:

Some people think Ben’s an ecofreak because he majored in ecology and he works for an eco-friendly organisation.


Franco- derives from the Medieval Latin word meaning ‘French’ or ‘the Franks’. From the early eighteenth century it has been used to form English compound words.

prefix Franco

ooh la, la

Some examples:

Francophile – a person who loves France and the French to the point of obsession

Francophobe – a person who has a morbid fear of the French

Franco-Canadians – French-speaking Canadians

Sentences using the above:

All Fred’s friends call him a Francophile because he visits France every year and he’s in love with France and the French.

Robert is a Francophobe who can’t stand France or the French.

People who speak French in Canada are called Franco-Canadians or Canadiens.


Deriving from the Greek word gastēr, this meant ‘stomach’.

Some examples:

gastroenterologist – a specialist in the branch of medicine dealing with the stomach and intestines

gastroenteritis – inflammation of the stomach and intestines. You may have heard this abbreviated colloquially to ‘gastro’

gastropod – a class of molluscs that move by sliding along on a ventral (relating to the belly) muscular ‘foot’

Sentences using the above:

Frank was having recurring problems with his digestion so his doctor referred him to a gastroenterologist.

I had to take two days off work because I had an attack of gastroenteritis.

Slugs and snails are gastropods.


From the Greek hydōr meaning ‘water’.

Some examples:

hydroelectric – electricity produced from the energy of running water

hydrogen – colourless, gaseous element. From the French hydrogène (Greek hydōr + Greek genēs meaning ‘born’), coined in 1787 by French chemist L.B. Guyton de Morveau in reference to the generation of water from the combustion of hydrogen

hydroplane – motor-powered boat that glides on the surface of water, coined 1895 by U.S. engineer Harvey D. Williams. (Greek hydōr + Latin plānum ‘level surface’). As a verb, it was first recorded in 1962 meaning to ‘skid on a thin layer of water’ (especially of car tyres)

Sentences using the above:

The Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, China is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, commissioned in 2008.

Hydrogen is a colourless gas and it is the lightest and most common element in the universe.

hydroplane is a speedboat that rises out of the water when it reaches a certain speed.


From the Greek idio- meaning ‘private, separate, distinct’, this indicates peculiarity, isolation, or something pertaining to an individual person or thing.

Some examples:

idiom – words whose meaning cannot be understood from the meanings of accompanying words, e.g. ‘It was raining cats and dogs’. Unless you’re a native English speaker, or a proficient non-native English speaker, you cannot predict the meaning of ‘cats and dogs’ in this sentence

idiosyncrasy – a quirk or unusual trait, mannerism or behaviour (from Greek idiosunkrasia: idio– + sunkrasis mixture, temperament)

idolatry – ‘the worship of idols’ or ‘excessive devotion to someone/something’

Sentences using the above:

The English-language students looked at one another in astonishment when their teacher used the idiom ‘bite the bullet’.

Her idiosyncrasy was that she wore reading glasses when she didn’t need them.

His idolatry of the president is insufferable.


From the Greek kerat-, keras meaning ‘horn’

Some examples:

keratin – a  protein in the outer layer of the skin and in hair, nails, feathers, hooves, etc.

keratosis – a harmless skin condition characterised by a horny or scaly growth

Sentences using the above:

A horn is a permanent pointed projection on the head of various animals consisting of a covering of keratin and other proteins surrounding a core of live bone (Wikipedia).

When I had my skin cancer check recently, the specialist said not to worry as I only had a solar keratosis.

Did you know? The word cornea (the transparent membrane covering the front of the eyeball) is a Latin word related to the Greek keras.

If you’ve enjoyed reading about the origin of words like ‘species’, ‘ecofreak’ and ‘Francophile’, drop me an email.


Collins Online Dictionary, accessed 03/01/19, https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english

Macquarie Dictionary, accessed 03/01/19, https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/

Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed 02/01/19, https://www.etymonline.com/

Oxford English Dictionary, Second edition, CD-ROM Version 4.0

Wikipedia, accessed 03/01/19, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_(anatomy)

I invite you to download my self-published eBook “Ten Ways to Super-Charge your Writing Skills! with bonus chapter on Self-Publishing”

Have Fun Playing with Unusual Words in Your Writing

I seldom avoid using a word in my writing just because I think a reader might not understand it. Dictionaries exist to look up words, and a good dictionary is an invaluable resource. Encouraging children to read, teaching them how to look up words in the dictionary and showing them how a thesaurus works help create a worthwhile habit. It will give them a head start as they progress through school and higher education.

Have two dictionaries (and a thesaurus)

Have fun playing with unusual words in your writing graphic showing dictionary entries of words

Use a modern as well as an older dictionary

Possessing two good dictionaries, a modern one (hard copy or online) and an older one (such as the Oxford) is a great idea. Some years ago, in a writing workshop I attended, the presenter mentioned in passing that:

In 1974, there were 475,000 words in common use in the English language

In 1995, that had gone down to 215,000 commonly used words

In 2006, it was estimated to have reduced further to 90,000 words.

That’s scary. The older the dictionary, the more of these ‘lost’ words, or words that have fallen into misuse, will be available to us.

Learning new vocabulary is enriching and consciousness expanding. It makes us better readers and better writers. It’s fun learning new and unusual words and using them in our writing.

The shape of a word on a page can have an interesting effect on how readers visualise your story. Keep your readers on their toes with an oddly shaped word now and then. Don’t overdo it because then the writing inclines towards the tedious. The sentences below use a few too many, but it’s all in the spirit of fun and playfulness.

Check out the weird and outlandish world of eccentric words at

Here are a select few:

lethologica – the inability to recall a precise word for something

Avoid lethologica in your writing by considering the following unusual words.

gongoozler: an idle spectator

The origin of this word is early 20th century. It referred to a person who idly watched activity on a canal. Before 1970 it was rarely used and it is thought to have come from the Lincolnshire words gawn and gooze meaning to stare or gape (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/gongoozler)

tarantism: an urge to overcome melancholy by dancing

Have fun playing with unusual words in your writing. picture of an exotic lady dancing but looking melancholy

Dancing away melancholy

Looking for the perfect turn of phrase to describe your character’s mood? Chances are good that a word for their exact disposition already exists. Is one of your characters a philosophunculist – one who pretends to know more than they do to impress others? Is your protagonist inclined to mulligrubs – bouts of depression or low spirits? Perhaps he is an aeolist, a pompous windy bore who pretends to have inspiration. I’m sure we’ve all met our share of aeolists.

If your descriptive passages are becoming too verbose, try incorporating some unusual descriptive terms. You can simplify your prose and expand upon your readers’ vocabulary – and let’s face it, your own! – at the same time.

How succinct, for instance, to say that:

your character is indulging in algerining, rather than saying he’s prowling around with the intent to commit a burglary

or that the audience at a controversial play exsibilates, lets out a collective hiss of disapproval

or that Mr Bumble in your period novel enjoys the art of oculoplania, letting his eyes wander while assessing a lady’s charms

Have fun playing with unusual words in your writing. people running and boys looking at girl

Indulging in oculoplania

and that while he is thus pleasantly occupied, he hears brontide in the distance, the low rumbling of distant thunder.

Similar to our philosophunculist is the ultracrepidarian, who speaks and offers opinions on matters beyond their knowledge. They may well have a tendency towards inaniloquence, speaking foolishly or being full of empty or idle talk.

Let’s hope they don’t end up experiencing a wanweird, an unhappy fate.

Have fun playing with words

Have fun playing with unusual words in your writing. picture saying that playing with words is absolutely allowed

Play with words and have fun!

This article was a collaboration between editors4you.com and Rhiannon Raphael, a former student of Bond University who undertook a 3-month internship with editors4you

I invite you to download my self-published eBook “Ten Ways to Super-Charge Your Writing Skills! with bonus chapter on Self-Publishing”

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Gail Tagarro, Accredited Editor, IPEd

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