Tricho- and Thrix
Including a Trick with Thrix
I was so enamored of the sounds "thi," "thl," and "thn" of the previous essay that my mind kept dancing with them long after I finished that mini-essay. Indeed thixotrophy or "reversible gelation" started me thinking about another similar-sounding Greek word that I have always loved, but which, to my disappointment and even chagrin, did not appear in English. Or, so I thought. It was the Greek word "thrix," which means "hair." I so much wanted to find a word thrixology or thrixological to denote something about the study of hair, but it just didn't appear in that form. Rather, as many people know, the word meaning the "study of the structure, functions, and diseases of the hair" is trichology. Literally dozens, if not hundreds, of words are built off the "tricho" root, and here I was wishing they all were built off "thrix" instead.
Then, of course, it dawned on me what was happening. When English borrows from a Greek noun, it almost always borrows from the noun in the genitive case, because that is where you find the "stem" of the noun. In regular nouns the nominative and genitive singular are nearly identical, with only the endings differentiating the terms, and you really never think about the fact that English words derived from the Greek word come from the genitive rather than the nominative. But, here the nominative and genitive singulars differ dramatically. The Greek noun for hair is "thrix (nominative), trichos (genitive)" and so the English words having to do with the wonder wonder glory of hair all begin or end with "tricho" or "trich" [one of my favorite is ulotrichy, which means "wooly-haired"].
But now I had a problem. Not only can't I use one of my most favorite sounds in the world ("thrix") to begin a word, but also once the words combining with "trich" come into English they almost invariably are scientific terms. It is like Plato's view of art in Book X of the Republic as two steps removed from reality. Here I was trying to stake a claim for thrix and the scientists had taken it over and changed it to trich. Now I know what it is like to live in Plato's cave in Book VII of the Republic, where I only see shadows passing before me as I sit chained and looking at the walls as the cave. I am forced to eat a diet of scientific terms beginning with trich rather than feasting at the table of thrix. For my daily fare I had to eat trichology, the study of hair, trichoid, resembling hair and trichoma, a disease of the hair (which is synonymous with trichopathic, relating to diseases of the hair).
The Tiniest Bit of Revenge
In my sadness, I began to study the various "tricho" entries and came upon a nice confusion that had been thrown into the well-oiled tricho machine. Everyone knows by now that "tricho" means "hair" and is derived from the Greek. But we also have "tri" from the Latin meaning "three," which has given birth to tons of English words. Is there a way they can be mixed so that even smart people may become confused? Let's briefly take the cluster of the following six words: (1) trichotomic; (2) trichotomism; (3) trichotomist; (4) trichotomize; (5) trichotomous; and (6) trichotomy. Which is from the Latin "tri" and which from the Greek "tricho"? Five are from "tri" and only one from "tricho." Can you guess which?
(1) trichotomic is from Latin built on the analogy with dichotomy and is defined identically to (5) trichotomous, which means dividing into three branches.
(2) trichotomism is also from Latin and is synonymous with (6) trichotomy and means an arrangement or classification in three divisions. It is only logical to think that dichotomize (to divide into two) appeared in English before trichotomize and indeed, though the latter is first attested in Healey's 1610 work on St. Augustine's City of God ["This Trichotomy or triple division doth not contradict the other Dichotomy"], a form of dichotomize ["dichotomist"] appeared in Christopher Marlowe in 1592. (4) trichotomize is also from the Latin and means to divide into three parts.
But, mirabile dictu, a (3) trichotomist is not one who divides the world or things into threes but is a "hair cutter." However, interestingly enough, a dichotomist is one who "classifies by dichotomy" or therefore one who divides the subject or entity into two parts.
I don't want to split hairs here, but I bet that tons of people have used "trichotomist" on the analogy of "dichotomist" to mean to divide things into threes. But, according to the OED, they are all wrong.
You see what happens when you stray too far away from the euphoniously beautiful thrix? Maybe we can start a revival or, since it never got off the ground, a "vival" of thrix. Sign me up as the world's first thrixologophile--a person in love with words beginning with thrix. Thrix is not for kids.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long