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Wordy Weekly XXIII

This is going to be a very UUUUsfull week. (Start as you mean to go on!) Yes, we have reached ‘U’. An interesting letter, both for Greek and Latin. Greek first!


Because of the ROUGH breathing in Greek, which fills in the ‘H’ sound when required, English derivatives from words beginning with the Greek UPSILON generally begin with ‘H’, as we saw with ‘ANHYDROUS’ all the way back in week I (the ‘HYDR- bit comes from the Greek for water). Greek words beginning with UPSILON can have a soft breathing without the ‘H’ sound, but English derivatives come primarily from those with a ROUGH breathing.

i) HUBRIS: ‘excessive arrogance or pride’. This does not entirely capture the full implications and disastrousness of the Greek term: ‘extreme arrogance, pride, and confidence, often leading to a fatal flaw or error with terrible consequences’. In English, it can certainly carry the notion of ‘pride comes before a fall (especially one that can lead a person to miss something or make a mistake that results in disaster). For the Greeks, it could be a crime against the gods, a mortal who committed HUBRIS acted above the power appropriate for them. A famous victim was King Croesus, who one could argue was guilty twice over. He placed far too much confidence and pride in his great wealth and scoffed at the warning of Solon about the true meaning of the ‘wealthy man’ and the ephemeral (brief) nature of good fortune, and then, too confident in his own military capacity, failed also to heed the (admittedly ambiguous) warning of the Delphic oracle (jolly good read, I can highly recommend Herodotus book I). A further example is Oedipus, again guilty in two ways. Firstly, there’s the small issue of killing his father and marrying his mother (although, the killing was arguably provoked, and he didn’t know about the whole mother thing). This has brought ‘miasma’ (pollution) on the city of Thebes in the form of plague. Secondly, there is his fatal flaw, his anger. It leads him entirely to disrespect Tiresias, who reluctantly tries to make Oedipus aware of who he really is and realise his own error. However, he is actually a rather more sympathetic character Croesus. Oedipus truly cares about Thebes and is pained at the sight of his sickened citizens. One can also perhaps understand his outrage at Tiresias – he is doing his best for his city and is suddenly told he is the murderer of the king he succeeded. Nevertheless, he is guilty of HUBRIS and suffers terribly, as should be BLINDINGLY obvious (sorry!).

ii) HYPER-/HYPO-THERMIC: ‘too hot’/’too cold’ (or, to be more precise above or below normal healthy temperature’. It is the ‘THERMIC’ part that gives the temperature/heat element. θερμὸς means ‘heat’ or ‘warmth’. Hence where we get ‘thermal’ from. It is the prefixed that modify these two words into opposite meanings.

ὑπερ - above, beyond, over (hence, over-warm)

ὑπο - under, below (hence below warm, not warm enough)


‘U’ is principally a vowel in Latin. However, one also sometimes sees words that begin with ‘V’ spelt with a ‘U’, for example ‘VIDEO’ can be seen as ‘UIDEO’. This perhaps, reflects the debate whether a Latin ‘V’ was pronounced as a ‘V’ or a ‘W’. You may remember that in week XVII, we met the Greek digamma, which may have had a ‘W’ sound and be related to certain Latin words that begin with ‘V’, for example ‘VINUM’ and the Greek οἶνον. Anyway, I am (you will be pleased to hear) not to enter into that debate. We will stick with Latin words that definitely do begin with a ‘U’.

i) UBIQUITY: ‘the state of being everywhere or in a great number of places’. This comes from the Latin ‘UBIQUE’ – ‘anywhere, everywhere’, ultimately deriving from the Latin ‘UBI’, which means ‘where’. It is a rather nice word, yes, one of my favoured slightly passé, words. We also have the (yes, slightly gone-out-of-fashion) adjective ‘UBIQUITOUS’. Latin also has the cute word ‘IBI’ meaning ‘there’ (the demonstrative version of ‘UBI’). What a shame we don’t have the word IBIQUITY. But rather fascinatingly I see there is an intellectual properties company called iBiquity. Whether, it is related to the Latin word, I have absolutely no idea.

ii) UMBRELLA: ‘useful tool for staying dry in the rain’ (please take this warning VERY seriously!!! Take one with you if you to a library, even if it is very sunny!!!!! Long story!). The word ultimately derives from the Latin UMBRA meaning ‘shade’ (ghost as well, just dropping that in). It is a diminutive (little version), meaning ‘LITTLE SHADE’. And, yes there is NO E between the B and the R. No UMBERELLAS please.

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