Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monster Mashing

The problem with posting on holidays is that I always feel compelled to put up something festive, inasmuch as I can be festive. (I try. Lord, how I try.) After searching for some old, Greek-derived word that means something like “great pumpkin” or “vampire fangs” or “slutty nurse,” I eventually found one that meets the requirement for Halloween but, in doing so, is awful. But it’s not me-awful. It’s etymology-awful. So go blame etymology.
teratogenesis (ter-ə-tə-JEN-ə-səs) — noun: the development of congenital malformations.
Why this? Etymologically speaking, the word means something like “the origin of monsters.” Yep — the technical, scientific term for deformity means “monster.” Our predecessors were not polite.

Technically, the term can also mean simply “marvel,” and even in English that relationship still exists. Our word monster comes from the Latin monere, “to warn” or “to advise,” which is related to monstrare, related to the English demonstrate and meaning “to point out” or “to show.” In both uses, there’s the sense of a thing being seen, which I guess would be a vital component in the process of labeling a thing a monster. I guess you’d have to see something before you could declare it a monster, right?

Teratogenesis, however, comes from the Greek root teras, also meaning “monster.” Aside from teratology (which could be interpreted to refer to either mythological beasts or biological ones), most of the English derivations of teras refer to the unfortunate, human kind of remarkables. We have teratogen (something that causes birth defects), teratoid (something exhibiting abnormal development), teratoma (a tumor frequenting the genitals) and even teratophilia (sexual attraction to monstrous or deformed people).

In light of this legacy of what really amounts to defamation, let me salute our differently-shaped brethren, apologize for the technical term (and, I guess, this post) and finally wish readers of all shapes (standard and non-) a happy Halloween.

With the best of intentions:

Halloween on this blog, previously:

Previous strange and wonderful words:
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  1. what about "terabyte"

  2. I've been interested in these words ever since the little boy in Jurassic Park (the book, not the movie) came across a sign warning about teratogenic substances and found it, awesomely enough, super-duper cool.

    But the most interesting thing I learned from your entry here is that an anagram for "teratoma" is the much more mundane "amaretto".

  3. Goofy: I didn't even consider that one. Why do you suppose the root lacks the "to"/"ta" in that form when it appears in nearly every other English descendant?

    Nora: I noticed that little anagram wonderment. I shall never again me able to enjoy amaretto as much.

  4. Drew: good question.