A question about elaiosomes

Jim McKenney jimmckenney@jimmckenney.com
Tue, 22 May 2007 11:20:54 PDT
David Ehrlich asked about the words elaiosome and elaisome. 

These words are formed by combining two classical Greek stems. Greek, of
course, is written in the Greek alphabet. English is written in the Roman
alphabet. To get from Greek to English (or any other language) one tries to
represent the sounds of the Greek as closely as possible in the target
language. That at least is the best, most sensible practice.

When two Greek stems are combined, the traditional practice (already
established in classical Greek itself) is to insert the letter o (if you are
using the Greek alphabet, it is omicron; this has significance in the
pronunciation of plant names because when written as the Latin letter o you
have to remember that it is a short o, not a long o. If this o occurs in the
next to last syllable, as in Scoliopus, it helps to know that it is short
and therefore the accent shifts back to the syllable with the i in this

Unlike many technical words, elaiosome evidently came into English directly,
not through a Latinized antecedent. Thus the spelling elaio- instead of
elaeo- . Note that if this word had been intended as a generic name or
specific epithet, it would be spelled elaeosom- + ending  (that's how you
represent the same sounds in Latin), or in modern practice, eleosome (think
of all the words in which the original Latin ae has become simply e in
modern spellings, at least in American English). If this word had been
intended to be used for a family of plants, the oblique stem of soma would
have been used giving "Elaeosomataceae". 

This business of inserting the connective o is more complicated if the
leading stem ends in a vowel and/or the following stem begins with a vowel.
In those cases, weak vowels are apt to disappear and any remaining vowels
are subject to other changes.   I've never seen the spelling elaisome, but
if it was intentional, perhaps the person who coined that spelling was
responding to the three vowels in a row: elAIOsome. Good classical practice
generally  would have avoided such a thing, although such strings of  vowels
were common in so-called Homeric Greek. 

Words like this intrigue me. Obviously whoever coined elaiosome wanted to
retain the sound of the Greek alpha-iota sound (like that of the pronoun I
in spoken English). If the standard transliteration had been used, it would
have been written elaeosome, mispronounced, and eventually probably cut to
eleosome, with the middle e getting a completely new sound, that of the e in
the pronoun me. 

But there's more: whenever someone starts thinking outside the box, and not
following traditional practices, it causes problems. In this case, is the
intention for the word elaisome to be pronounced  e-lai-some or is
e-la-i-some intended? I have no idea myself, and that uncertainty will cause
me to avoid elaisome and stick to elaiosome. 

Here's another example, and maybe someone else can explain this one (I
can't). At a plant sale over the weekend, I got a plant of Silene dioica.
This word dioica is causing me problems. The etymology is clearly the Greek
word for two (di when written as Latin) + the Greek word for house (oikos,
ditto). The conventional spelling of this combination is dioeca, and thus
the English word dioecious. What has happened in the word dioica? Dioeca is
a three syllable word; but is this dioica  a four syllable word (that's how
I pronounce it). Is the oi a standardized misspelling of oe? Is this an
example of some free wheeling scholar in the past "improving" the spelling
by seeming to retain the Greek diphthong oi?

It's time for me to get back to weeding. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where the south side of our
little house is a fragrant sheet of Noisette roses today. See them here:

My Virtual Maryland Garden http://www.jimmckenney.com/
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin http://www.pvcnargs.org/ 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society http://www.potomaclilysociety.org/

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