Rant warning: myrmecophory/ myrmecochory; semiparasitic/hemiparasitic

Jim McKenney jamesamckenney@verizon.net
Mon, 16 Mar 2015 17:07:58 PDT
Jane wrote “Myapology for misremembering and misspelling some of the details of 
the RockGarden Quarterly article on the above subject.”

We haven’t had a good language rant for a while, so heregoes. As far as I’m concerned, Janedoes not owe an apology to anyone – certainly not to me or the many otherpeople who have used the word myrmecophory for decades.  In other recent posts, the word hemiparasitichas appeared. Picky about word usage as I sometimes am, I would not take anyoneto task for using semiparasitic instead of hemiparasitic. I’ve gotsomething to say about all of this.

Let’s take a look at myrmecophory vs. myrmecochory first.These are so-called New Latin words. They did not exist in Classical Latin and,more to the point since they are formed from Classical Greek combining forms,they did not exist in Classical Greek. But, those Greek roots, however combined,do carry with them fragments of meaning. In the case of myrmecophory, thosemeanings are “ant” and “to carry”. In the case of myrmecochory, those meaningsare “ant” and “to dance” (think choreography). To be sure, their meaningsderive from the way they are used and not from the meanings of their componentparts. Thus, myrmycophory would be a good word to describe both a process whichcauses ants to be carried by something or just as well a process in which antscarry something. It’s my choice for the process in which ants distribute seeds.

Myrmecochory  likewisemight be used for a type of dance in which the movements of ants are mimicked(in The Ballet of the Ants maybe) ,  orjust as well a process in which ants themselves dance something (the ant jig?).Since there is no law which prohibits scientists from using metaphor or a bitof poetic license, we don’t have to get too exercised about why this word wasput together this way. But when you know the etymology of the words in question,it seems to me that myrmecophory says it better than myrmecochory. 

In fact, when I see this word myrmecochory, I’m reminded ofone of my aunts squealing at the sight of ants dancing all over her peonyflowers. 

Now on to semiparasitic and hemiparasitic: when coining newplant names which are compound words made by putting together bits and pieces ofLatin or Greek, Botanists have long followed the rule that Latin is combinedwith Latin and Greek is combined with Greek; Latin and Greek should not becombined in the same word (this rule caused the metamorphosis of the Erythroniumspecies name multiscapoideum to multiscapideum; multiscapoideum was poor formbecause it combined Latin and Greek). 

Among the things which this rule does not make allowancesfor are the facts that, for one, Latin and Greek had a long history ofborrowing words one from the other. And since those languages used differentalphabets, all such borrowed words had to be respelled. In some old herbals theLatin and Greek forms of the words are given side by side, but since few peopleoutside of Greece read the Greek alphabet,  the Latin spellings wonout. Those Latin spellings did not arise out of the blue: the Latin spellingsof Greek words were phonetic spellings: i.e. to the Romans who used them, ifthe words were pronounced according to the rules for the pronunciation ofLatin, the resulting sound would come close to the sound of the Greek word fromwhich the Latinized form was derived. Since there were sounds in Greek whichLatin did not have, certain Latinized words sport creative spellings, and someof the ambiguities of the Latin alphabet (such as the letter s: does itrepresent an s sound or a z sound or did the Romans not make a distinction?)probably caused problems for the Greeks (Greek had both the s sound and the zsound and treated them as different sounds – different phonemes to betechnical). 

This worked well as long as people knew how to pronounceLatin. 

In the English speaking world, the prevailing style ofpronouncing Latin and Latinized Greek is several hundred years old (there is adetailed Wikipedia article on this if you are interested – or can’t get tosleep right away).  Scholars of Latin andGreek abandoned this system of pronunciation over a century ago. In otherwords, the system of pronunciation in general use for scientific names has notbeen used by those in the know for over a century. Imagine if someone gave a talk to your garden club and used the taxonomy of a century ago: everyone who knew modern taxonomy would be outraged. But no one stirs when pronunciations discredited a century ago are used. 

So, while pronunciations have changed, the keepers of thegate have meticulously maintained the orthography (spelling). What the averageguy does not know is that those spellings are the Latin spellings, the phoneticspellings which enabled educated Romans to approximate the sound of Greek.Since the average guy does not know how to pronounce Latin (and there are noancient Greeks to correct him when the speaker gets to the Latinized Greekwords) , when he pronounces those words the sounds which come out are gobbledygook.Make that officially sanctioned gobbledygook.

We live in the age of television. I mean the wordtelevision: when the word television was coined ( part Greek, part Latin) ashudder went through the world’s ivory towers. It was uncouth, it broke theprohibition against combining Latin and Greek in the same word. And to addinsult to injury, the English- speaking world embraced it and the freedom to combine Latin and Greek in the same word.

Now back to semiparasite and hemiparasite. I grew up usingthe word semiparasite, as did everyone else I encountered who had need of sucha concept. My Webster’s Seventh (1963) has entries for both words. ClassicalLatin had  words derived from the Greekword for parasite, and Classical Latin used both the Greek derived hemi- andthe Latin semi-. However, if the word semiparasiticus or similar words wereused in Classical Latin, evidence of such usage does not survive. Nor doesevidence of a Classical Latin word hemiparasiticus survive. Furthermore, thestandard Greek-English lexicon does not show a Classical Greek wordcorresponding to hemiparasite.  That makesthese words hemiparasite and semiparasite New Latin: words coined in modern times to look like Latin or LatinizedGreek.

To my sensibilities - and remember, I grew up in the post television(the word, not the device)  world – this wordhemiparasite has a holier-than-thou quality to it – it’s the sort of thing onewould expect of some lonely, underpublished academic still scratching forrecognition, still willing to apply the  rule –long obsolete in English -  of not combining Latin and Greek in the sameword. As a stylistic matter, it makes sense to use hemiparasiticus if one iswriting in Latin. But I’m not writing in Latin, I’m writing in English, and inmy English semiparasitic is still good form. 

Jim McKenneyMontgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where we've just come through a perfect early spring day with things popping up faster than I can keep up with them. 
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