Theoretically there is no limit to the length of a word that
can be constucted with Greek or Latin elements. Consider the
This is a word that means "complete surgical removal of the
vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries." It strings together a
total of six Greek bases in addition to the compound suffix "-ectomy".
We call such a word, in which more than one BASE is present, a
compound word. In practice, compound words rarely contain more than
two or three bases, but if the person who coins the word wants to be
very specific, she can add as many bases, prefixes and suffixes as he
wants. However, the ORDER in which the elements go is not completely
arbitrary. There are general tendencies which are observed in the
creation of compound words, and being aware of these tendencies can
help you interpret words that are unfamiliar to you. First of all,
there are two different types of compound words, Coordinate Compounds
and Subordinate Compounds.
In Coordinate Compounds all the bases are of equal importance
in determining the meaning of the word. In such words the bases tend
to indicate things of the same class or kind. Consider the following
1. Scapulohumeral: "Pertaining to the scapula (SCAPUL-) and the
humerus (HUMER-)" [both bases indicate bones]
2. Dentilabial "Pertaining to the teeth (DENT-) and the lips (LABI-)"
[both parts of the mouth]
3. Gastroenteritis: "Inflammation of the stomach (GASTR-) and
intestines (ENTER-)" [internal organs]
4. Pneumocardial: "Pertaining to the lungs (PNEUM-) and the heart
(CARDI-)" [more organs]
In each of these words both of the bases are on an equal
footing; they designate similar things and neither one is more
important than the other. In defining the words, one simply links the
meanings of the two bases with "and". In theory one could switch the
order of the bases without damaging the meaning: "Gastroenteritis"
could just as well have been "Enterogastritis", since "Inflammation of
the stomach and intestines" means pretty much the same as
"Inflammation of the intestines and the stomach". It is only through
convention and tradition that "Gastroenteritis" has become the norm.
In some cases, different meanings have developed for different
orderings of the elements of coordinate compounds. Consider the
following two botanical terms:
1. Gynandrous: "having the pistil (GYN-) and the stamens (ANDR-)
united to form a column."
2. Androgynous: "composed of staminate (ANDR-) and pistillate (GYN-) flowers."
The difference in meaning between these words is completely
arbitrary; there is no way you could have predicted it simply by
looking at the word. Moreover, in addition to these technical
meanings, the latter of the two also has developed broad application
in non-scientific speech (with the meaning "possessing both male and
female characteristics"), whereas the former has remained limited in
its use. One can refer to Michael Jackson or k.d. lang as
"androgynous", for instance, but not "gynandrous". Again this is not
dictated by the form of the word; it is simply a matter of tradition
and conventional usage.
As the name might suggest, in subordinate compounds one base
is clearly subordinate to another. Subordinate compounds are far more
numerous than coordinate compounds, and there are many ways in which
the subordination can manifest itself, as the following examples will
A: The first element is a descriptive adjective modifying the second.
Such compounds are very numerous:
1. brachyuran: "having a short (BRACHY-) tail (UR-)"
2. microspore: "a small (MICR-) seed (SPOR-)"
3. platyhelminth: "a flat (PLATY-) worm (HELMINTH-)"
4. dolichocephalic: "having a long (DOLICH-) head (CEPHAL-)"
B. Similar to these are cases where the first element is not an
adjective, but still serves to specify or limit the range or area to
which the second base refers:
1. omodynia: "pain (ODYN-) in the shoulder (OM-)"
2. bronchostenosis: "a narrowing (STEN-) of the air tubes (BRONCH-)"
3. acromegaly: "an enlargement (MEGAL-) of the extremities (ACR-)"
C. The first element is the direct object of the second, which has a
verbal sense. In other words, the first base receives the action
described by the second:
1. anthophorous: "bearing (PHOR-) flowers (ANTH-)"
2. halophilous: "having an affinity for (PHIL-) salt (HAL-)"
3. hematopoiesis: "the production (POIE-) of blood (HEMAT-)"
4. xylophagous: "eating (PHAG-) wood (XYL-)"
D. The second base is once again a verbal one, but the first base,
instead of being the object of the verbal idea, indicates the means by
which or the manner in which the action is accomplished:
1. actinotherapy: "treatment (-therapy) by means of radiation (ACTIN-)"
2. acupuncture: "pricking (PUNCT-) with a needle (ACU-)"
3. fissiparous: "giving birth (PAR-) by means of fission (FISS-)"
In all these different types of subordinate compounds, one
common characteristic is evident. It is the FINAL base that provides
the basic substance of the word. The first base is used to limit,
specify or modify the second base, and plays the subordinate role in
To show how knowledge of this can help you in the
interpretation of words, let's look at a couple of examples. Consider
The suffix "-al" can mean "pertaining to", so lets begin
defining the word that way: "Pertaining to....." Now, what comes next?
The base PHAG- means "to eat" and CYT- means "cell". So does our word
mean "Pertaining to the eating of cells"? No. Remember the second
base is the dominant one, so we ought to give it a more prominent
place in our definition: "Pertaining to a cell..." Now we can add the
PHAG- and come up with a good definition: "Pertaining to a cell that
eats" or more simply, "Pertaining to a phagocyte". You may know that
a Phagocyte is a cell that "eats" foreign matter in the bloodstream.
Now we'll switch the order of the bases and see what we come up with:
A good definition of the suffix "-ous" here is "Characterized by..."
Given what was said above you should be able to guess what the rest of
the definition would be: "Characterized by the eating of cells". Once
again the focus of our definition is on the second element, "eating",
as it is the dominant member of the compound.
COMPOUND WORD EXERCISE; (Answers will be posted before midterm):
A) Choose the best response, then indicate with a "C" or a "S" whether
the word in question is a Coordinate compound or a Subordinate
1. Having long arms:
a) DOLICHOBRACHIAL b) BRACHIODOLICHAL
2. Pertaining to pigment found in wood:
a) XYLOCHROMOUS b) CHROMOXYLOUS
3. Having wood with a deep colour:
a) XYLOCHROMOUS b) CHROMOXYLOUS
a) the study of ear, nose and larynx ailments.
b) the study of ear and nose tissue in the larynx.
B) Based on your knowledge of coordinate and subordinate compounds,
try to come up with likely definitions for the following words:
1. Myxopodial (MYX- "slime", POD- "foot")
2. Oligotocous (OLIG- "few", TOC- "childbirth")
3. Keratomalacia (KERAT- "cornea";MALAC- "soft"; -ia: condition
C) Try to come up with properly formed words that correspond to the
following definitions. USE ONLY THE ELEMENTS PROVIDED:
1. A segment of an arthropod that serves as a tail (segment: MER- tail: UR- )
2. Having a broad and long head (Broad: EUR-; Long: DOLICH-; Head:
CEPHAL-; Having: -ic)
3. Having few large cells: (Few: OLIG-; Large: MACR- ; Cell: CYT-;