Tuesday, May 20, 2003
As Good a Place to Start as Any
Last night as I was mopping up, for some reason I got a single word stuck in my head. It was "Amphigorey," the title of an Edward Gorey collection. And I started thinking about the prefix "amphi-," that it meant everything. Thus "Amphigorey" was a collection of all of Gorey's works, at least up to that time. But then I remembered "amphibian." An amphibian lives both on land and in the water, suggesting that "amphi-" means "both."
Then I got a bit confused, remembering "ambi-" as in "ambidextrous" and "ambivalent." Somebody who is ambidextrous can use both hands equally well, but, "dexter" being Latin for "right," the word literally means having two right hands (a frightening concept to southpaws like myself). Something that is ambivalent means two things at once. So I stopped my mopping and asked the asst. manager if "ambi-" and "amphi-" were just different spellings for basically the same prefix and he looked at me funny.
I could easily look this up, but knowing the truth of the matter is much less interesting than having a random question to ask people in order that they may look at me funny.
It does suddenly occur that "ambi-" could mean all and "amphi-" both... but then why not speak of the amphidextrous President Garfield writing in Latin with one hand and Ancient Greek with the other?
That last sentence may actually contain its own answer. "Ambi-" is Latin, whereas "amphi-" strikes me as having a distinct Greek flavor. Mixing a Greek prefix with a Latin word is far worse a crime than splitting an infinitive... I think it would be interesting to do a survey of neologisms to see how many of them trample this neat boundary.
Let us all hope that this last meandering and pointless entry does not set the tone for all future to follow. Charitably view it as a priming of the pump-- first comes air, then sludge, then mud, then dirty water. Perhaps clarity will come in time.
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