Exploring the Extremites
We have already met acro briefly, but it is a prefix that attaches to a wonderfully rich array of other words. It can mean, variously, "highest" or "topmost" or "extreme" or "end," and, as a substantive, suggests the top or the tips of an object. Probably the most familiar English word beginning with acro is acrophobia, the fear of heights. By perching over the edge of a cliff and looking downward, one may be casting an acrophobic glance below. But there are at least a dozen terms beginning with acro that call for comment.
Arranging the Terms
Let's start with the grossest or most vivid of the acro terms, for the benefit of any high schoolers that might come upon this page. Acroteriasm is only attested a few times and is derived from the Greek verb "akroteriazein," meaning "amputation of the extremities" or the act of cutting off the extreme parts of the body, when putrefied, by a saw. Oooh. Isn't that gruesome. I suppose that means that the body has to be dead before the cutting off takes place, but there is no reason why this needs to be the case. Indeed, its usages in classical Greek suggest amputation or mutilation, without mention of putrefaction. I wrote a history of the Oregon Death Penalty. The most heinous serial murderer in Oregon's history used to saw off the limbs of some of his victims. I suppose it would be correct to say that Mr. Rogers practiced acroteriasm on his victims. Anything to learn a new word...
Less gross but still eliciting a suppressed cry of "gross" from the girls in class would be acrochordon, defined as a kind of hard and elongated wart, supposed to resemble the head of a length of string (hence chorde=cord). Yet you have to know a little more of your medical terminology to know that it refers to the kinds of small thin warts on the necks or other folds of skin of obese people. Doctors aren't sure how they get there, but acrochordons sure are gross, aren't they?
More sad than gross is a medical condition known as acromegaly, characterized by enlargement of the extremities. The word is usually associated with giants, whose elongated features often contribute to conditions leading to premature death. The most extreme example of an acromegalic was Robert Pershing Wadlow, who was still growing at 8'11'' when he died of an infection at age 22.
Finally, of this group, is a term that is more scary than gross. Acrotic means "without pulse," and acrotism is the lack of pulsation or extremely weak pulse." It is a condition you don't want to experience too often in life. In this case the word is derived from "a," the alpha privative, and "krotos," meaning pulse. But acrotic, derived from acroetes, can also mean, with respect to diseases, "pertaining to the surface or outside." Because almost no one knows either word, there is little chance of mixing meanings, but I believe that those who can confuse extremely obscure things are especially loved by God.
Humdrum and Recondite Acros
The word acrocomic, meaning "long haired" (the Greek word for hair is "komos") is rarely if ever used, but appeared once in the detective novels written by Michael Innes (1906-94). The real name of this Oxford literature professor was J.I.M. Stewart, and he was described as the "most adeptly and allusively elephantine critic recently committed to the English language." Beware of the pointy-headed detectives who can use acrocomic and acrocephalic ("characterized by a lofty skull") in the same sentence.
I will conclude this first page of acros by reference to acrolect, which has a narrower and broader meanings that should be noted. In its narrower sense it refers to the dialect most clsely resembling the standard (English) language in a post-creole or creole community (such as Jamaica). More expansively the word can be used to contrast with basilect and mesolect (derivations obvious), to mean "the most prestigious or 'highest' social dialect of any language." One might use the term as follows: "In colonial times, theological speech was the acrolect, but the twentieth century saw the emergence of medi-psycho-legal speech as the contemporary acrolect." Or, "the literary critics must be slightly chagrined to discover they are far from being initiators of linguistic change in the direction of the acrolect.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long