Word taster Roberto De Vido, reading an article in The Economist, observed this sentence: “Mr Van Rompuy has been a surprisingly effective Belgian prime minister, holding his fissiparous country together well enough for some to fret over his departure from domestic politics.”
Fissiparous! Oh, it has that hissing sound, like a bed of snakes wanting to attack each other, or at least like a hissy fit; the éclat of the [pa] after all that might even suggest a bomb with a fuse. Or it could be the sound of slate or shale sliding apart – the sliding gets visual reinforcement from the twin s‘s holding apart twin i‘s (perhaps the s‘s are the sliding of the i‘s). The fissi accurately suggestions fission, which many people may know best from nuclear fission, which again can give the word a taste of explosion.
So it has to do with splitting? Indeed. And do we know the parous? As in viviparous and oviparous? It comes from Latin parere, “bring forth,” and refers to birth, literally and metaphorically.
And in this word’s case, the metaphorical meaning seems currently supervenient. I’m sure biologists use fissiparous mainly to refer to cell division; few others seem to do so. Many of the instances of usage one will find for it are speaking of politics – Iraq, for instance, and political parties, and assorted nations. Actually, fissiparity is also sometimes known as balkanization when the various entities formed by division are mutually hostile as well, as the Balkan countries so famously can be.
But I think many people who use it really want another word, sometimes perhaps fractious or factious. Now, those words don’t have quite the length and hissiness, and the meanings are different – fractious means “unruly” (disposed to infractions), and factious means “inclined to form different parties.” But not every instance where we see fissiparous used really speaks of a case where something has been formed by division or is inclined to divide into two new independent entities. The Democratic Party in the US has been described as being fissiparous or having fissiparous organization, but from what I can see it’s still one party, and its members still part of one country.
And, turning back to The Economist, Belgium, like Canada, has a linguistic divide, and there is occasional talk of separation. But will there actually ever be separation? Actions and words are different things, and one ought not to count the pieces before the fission has occurred. Sometimes the purportedly fissiparous are just in need of pacifiers.