cymotrichous, leiotrichous, ulotrichous

When I was a little kid, certain adults would tell me to eat the crusts on my bread because they would make my hair curly.

This did not make me want to eat the crusts on my bread.

Seriously, what was so much better about curly hair? I was perfectly happy with my hair, which was fine and straight. (It still is, though I have since discovered that if I grow it to 24 inches it develops a whorl at the bottom.)

Nonetheless, one time at age 4 or 5 when I was at the home of a friend of mine, her mother was curling her hair and asked if I would like a curl, and when I said yes she put a curl right in the middle of the top of my head. I think it lasted a few days. I probably looked like a soft-serve ice cream cone.

Some words are like that curl: unnecessary ornaments used just because someone thinks they will look good: “A longer, hairier word would go better here.” I have nothing against ornamental words, of course – I have a massive collection of them – but I also don’t think they are intrinsically better. There is no prima facie reason to think that a polysyllabic Latin-Greek confection is a truer, more accurate name for a thing than two syllables of Anglo-Saxon. But words are known by the company they keep, and some words just look like they belong to the best clubs.

Today’s triplet of words are a veritable Huey, Dewey, and Louie – or maybe Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – or, hmm, Larry, Curly, and Moe – of ostentatious sesquipedalian pseudo-classicism. They are words that you will probably encounter in three places: newspaper articles written by the same sort of people who feel compelled to call a cucumber an indehiscent pepo and to call a pumpkin a gourd four times for every once they call it a pumpkin; “did you know” articles and lists passed around by the kind of people you’d really like to unfriend on Facebook but don’t want to cause bad feelings; and spelling bees.

All three of these words are made from Greek parts and have been around in English for about a century and a half. They were made up by a French naturalist who wanted to classify humans into types by hair, because if you’re going to classify things you have to classify them in Latin or Greek or it’s not science!

Because of the time when they came into English, their pronunciation follows the old-style English-oriented pronunciation of classical words. For one thing, the stress is on the antepenult – the third-last syllable – in all three. For another, cymo is said like “sigh mo,” leio is said like “lie oh,” and ulo is said like “you low.” (That makes my hair stand on end. People! These are Greek roots!)

Any guesses as to what they mean, what they classify? Try the trichous half; it’s the less tricky part. Have you seen the word trichotillomania? It’s a compulsion to pull one’s hair out. (Endemic to the editorial profession, if figuratively.) The source is the Greek τριχ trikh root, which refers to hair.

So. I am leiotrichous. This may sound like the self-introduction of some ancient monster or warrior, but it just means I have straight hair – Greek λεῖος leios ‘smooth’. Certain adults of my childhood thought it was better to be ulotrichous: to have curly hair – Greek οὖλος oulos ‘crisp, curly’. Many people favour being cymotrichous: having wavy hair – Greek κῦμα kuma ‘wave’. I like all sorts of hair, and all lengths from ankle to none. I’m fine with what I have.

And now we have three more words to stick on the knick-knack shelf. They are the kind of word you will always need to define on first use unless you’re talking to a true in-group. They’re like that odd mystical little object that looks rare and special and pricey but that is unidentifiable until you explain to your dinner guests that it is the trigger assembly from a Qin Dynasty crossbow. Then they all nod sagely and are impressed.

But you may also want to tread a little carefully. These words are now used (when used at all) simply as descriptives for kinds of hair, but words that began as means of racial classification can sometimes have a bit of an off odour to them – like burnt hair, maybe.

3 responses to “cymotrichous, leiotrichous, ulotrichous

  1. Pingback: Pleasingly convoluted words | Chris.ink

  2. Pingback: Pleasingly convoluted words | Chris

  3. Pingback: Pleasingly convoluted words – Chris.ink

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