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CLASSICAL COMPOUND, also learned compound. A COMPOUND WORD whose elements and pattern derive from a classical language, as in agriculture from LATIN, biography from GREEK. Two features distinguish such words from most VERNACULAR compounds: further words can be derived from them, such as agricultural(ly), agricultur(al)ist and biographical(ly), biographer, and there are often SUFFIX-related stress shifts in their derivational patterns, such as ágriculture/agricúltural, biógraphy/biográphical, caused in these instances by the addition of -(ic)al. Because they have long been an international resource, such compounds are both part of English and other than English; in form, they range from the entirely English dinosaur to the Neo-Latinate Tyrannosaurus.


Such compounds derive from word-forming systems absorbed to varying degrees by many modern European languages. They have been in English since the Middle Ages, but did not become common until the influx of Neo-Latinisms during the Renaissance: mystagogue 1550, androgyn˚e 1552, troglodyte 1555, geographical and hydrographer 1559. In adopting such words, English followed French rather than German, which tended to resist NEO-LATIN compounds in favour of calques like Landwirtschaft for Latin agricultura and Lebensbeschreibung or Lebensgeschichte (description or history of life) for Greek biographia (although the term Biographie is widely used). In French, adoption was wholesale and adaptation minimal: agricultura and biographia became agriculture and biographie. From French, such items passed into English with little or no adaptation in spelling.


It is functionally unimportant whether a classical compound is first used in English, French, or any other language. The elements are international and the conventions for their adaptation well established. Greek elements are usually transmitted through Latin orthography. In this system, k usually becomes c: cardiology, not *kardiology (but note leuk(a)emia, not leuc(a)emia, and both leucocyte and leukocyte). R with rough breathing becomes rh in French and English (rhinocéros, rhinoceros) or r in Italian and Spanish (rinoceronte). On occasion, a biological term may combine Greek and Latin: Tyrannosaurus rex (Greek ‘tyrant lizard’, Latin ‘king’) and Oviraptor philoceratops (Latin ‘eggsnatcher’, Greek ‘lovable horned-face’). Some binomials contain information about people and places, such as Albertosaurus sternbergi Sternberg's Alberta lizard, and Yangchuanosaurus shangyouensis the Shanghai Yangchuan lizard. The classification for naturalists developed by such taxonomists as Carolus Linnaeus is an ad-hoc system that has its own fossils; it is as likely to mark ignorance as knowledge and to express subjective as objective comment. Linnaeus classified nonflowering plants as Cryptogamia (hidden marriage), because he did not know how they reproduced. When his successors discovered the processes involved, they left the name unchanged. When the British anatomist Richard Owen coined the name dinosaur (‘terrible lizard’, 1841) for the extinct reptiles whose skeletons were found in rock strata, Romanticism contributed more than science.

Uses and glosses

The compounds are part of technical usage and include the names of many scientific studies: biology, cardiology, meteorology. Such labels are often opaque and intimidating to people not trained in their use, with the result that, although tools of technical description, they have some of the features of a secret language. They may be difficult to pronounce, because of their length and suffix-related shifts in stress. Someone attempting an unfamiliar form can mispronounce it and retreat in confusion: for example, ‘Tonight we have someone interesting to talk to you, folks. He's an orni-, an ornitho-, a birdman’ (BBC disc jockey, live, 1970). The switch from ornithologist to birdman is part of a practice of explaining classical compounds by translation into everyday terms. Such glossing ranges from formal etymologies to informal paraphrases, as in: ‘The name “echinoderm” comes from the Greek echînos, a hedgehog, and dérma, the skin’; ‘The Archaeopteryx, whose name means “ancient wing”…’; ‘the reptile subclass Archosauria (ruling lizards)’; ‘Cosmology, the science of the universe’; ‘Coprolites or fossilized excrement’; ‘Cryptozoology, the quest for animals that scientists have yet to discover’.

Although such terms as neurology and Archaeopteryx are scientific, classical compounding is not confined to the sciences, and predates scientific method. In divination, compounds based on -mancy are numerous, including: necromancy divination through talking to the dead, nephelomancy through observing clouds, ophiomancy by inspecting snakes, pyromancy by watching flames, tyromancy by examining cheese. Sometimes compounds are used to impress and lend a cachet, as in cosmetology the art of applying cosmetics. They have also been coined for facetious and satirical purposes, as with odontopedology, the art of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it. Classical and vernacular elements combine to this end: escapology the carnival art of getting out of chains and cabinets, kiddology the art of kidding or conning people, sudsology the study of soap operas. See COMBINING FORM, INTERFIX, INTERNATIONAL SCIENTIFIC VOCABULARY, WORD-FORMATION.

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