A Para-ble

Our language is so old and mysterious that it's easy to believe that words just are. Aside from the trivial case of words like doorpost or foretell, we may assume that most words are simply accidental heaps of letters that have meaning only by arbitrary convention.

That's not so, of course, and it helps, sometimes, to sit down with one little example and worry it to death, on the chance that it might actually break apart and spill its secrets out for us. There's often a message from the time of Abelard, or Pliny, or Herodotus.

So there we were, wondering about the meaning of paralegal, and all we could think of was to start naming other words, and trying to see the pattern: parasol, paranormal, paramilitary, parapet, parable, paragraph, paramagnetism, and so on.

I was pretty sure that we wanted to concentrate on those cases where para- seemed to be suggested "alternate", "auxilliary" or "lesser". Along with the obvious candidates on our initial list, I could add paramedic but then someone said, "Well if para- means 'lesser', how do you explain parallel?" and I had to admit I was paralyzed.

Then we looked at parasol, and were pretty sure it meant "against the sun", and I thought this was more evidence of a meaning of "across", and in fact I tried to assert then that para- was best understood as meaning "counter", a reflection, or imitation, or secondary instance. Which still didn't explain parasol. For that matter, as someone quickly pointed out, what about parachute?

I certainly wasn't paranoid about visiting the library as punishment for mouthing off so authoritatively. After a short time with an etymological dictionary I came up with lots more examples of para- words, and a better understanding of how to explain their meanings.

History is full of accidents, false clues and coincidences, so it should be little wonder that there's no simple decoder ring that turns old words into their original roots. To sort out the evidence, it will help first to pull out parachute, parasol and parapet.

These words come to us directly from French; in fact, parasol and parapet go back further to Italian. In all these words, the prefix para- is to be taken to mean "defense against" or "protection from". It's easy to see that a parasol is a defense against the sun; I didn't know that chute means "fall" in French, but that makes the meaning of parachute easy to see. The surprise was that a parapet is properly a "breastwork", that is, it is a wall built breast-high, a protection against the physical breast of the attacking troops. The second half of the word derives from "petto" for "breast". There is also the word parados which indicates mounds raised up inside a fortification to intercept rifle fire, but while this certainly seems to fit the "defense against" pattern, I have not ascertained this conjecture.

A few more words employ the same French word par that indicates "by means of", as in par avion which indicates airmail. The word paramour should be read as "par amour", that is, someone to whom you are attached "by means of love". The word paramount has a similar origin as "by means of rising", but the etymology does not really explain its current meaning of "most important"; we will find many more cases where we need to stretch our standards to accept the tatty explanations that history has left us.

Strangely enough, the word parade is a lonely para- word which comes from a Spanish word parar meaning "to stop", and indicating that horses (or men) are to be marched and stopped at various times during the process.

A huge chunk of para- words remain, whose origins generally go right back to Greek. In that language, the prefix had a few related meanings, which are indeed reasonably well summarized by the idea of "counterpart" or (a cognate word!) "opponent".

Thus, we have paradox, a contrary teaching or statement. (Think of orthodox, docent and dogma).

In this context, it's easy to understand the paranormal as being either contrary (against) or counter (alternative) to normal teaching or experience.

We can also see paranoia as being a sort of counter, parallel or false mind or knowledge.

We have parody, whose original meaning was a comic counter version of a dramatic song (ode, odeon, melody (a sweet song!)).

We have parallax, the perceptible change in the position of stars as the Earth goes about its orbit. The Greek word allasein indicates change or discrepancy, and the meaning is that when you compare the two images against each other, you see a change.

The Greek word alleloi means "alike", and when you place two things against each other and find they are alike, you say they are parallel. The biological word allele comes from this same root.

A related word is paragon, which originally indicated something that was used to "beside test", that is, a standard against which other things were measured. The root agon also supplies the meaning of "con-TEST-ant" to agonist, protagonist, antagonist, and agony.

A paradigm, similarly, is an "beside show", an example that helps to illustrate a discussion or form a thought.

Apparently, some personality types have persisted through time. This is the explanation for parasite, which comes from para sitos, meaning "beside eat", and referred originally to "professional dinner guests", or people who lived by amusing the rich. Later, of course, this word came to have the more sinister meaning of any creature that feeds off another while providing no benefit in return.

Nudging "along side of" a little gives us "on the side of", and helps explain why paralysis is a "side loosening", that is, a loss of control on one side. Similarly, paraplegia is a "side striking", or a sort of blow (injury, really) to one side of the body. Strangely enough, a paramecium is a creature that is "side big"; presumably long and wormy looking.

Notice how para's meaning of "against" has shifted from "opposed to" to "along side of". This explains what a paraphrase means, which has the Greek etymology of "beside-to-tell". Meanwhile, our familiar parenthesis can be parsed as the Greek pare en tithena, meaning "beside in put" which more or less indicates what parentheses are for. In fact, paragraph originally indicated a paragraph marker, placed "along side of" or "next to" each paragraph of text.

There is also a somewhat chilling term from biology, parabiosis, that was used to describe experiments in which two animals were made to share a common blood supply. And a parablast is the yolk, which is next to, or along side of, the ovum.

Taking "along side of" to mean "auxiliary", we easily handle the modern coinages of paralegal, paramedic, and paramilitary. These are people who aren't quite the same as the standard groups, but who can perform some of the same functions. A more interesting case is paraphernalia: a bride's dowry was her pherne, which, of course, soon ended up in the control of the husband. But any other belongings she brought "along side of" the dowry where her paraphernalia!

Moreover, as soon as the word is used in the meaning of "along side of", it can also be taken to mean "near to", and hence we have perigee and perihelion, which indicate when a planet, moon, comet, satellite or other celestial is nearest the earth (Gaia) or the sun (Helios).

Medicine has been an enthusiastic coiner of new Greek words, and it should take little thought to figure out what anatomical structure you should locate first, in order to find the parathyroid glands. The paradactylum is the side of a finger or toe. Dactyl is cognate with digit; some other day, we'll wonder why a particular poetic accent scheme is known as dactylic. Similarly, some insects have a paraglossal structure that is next to their tongues.

Now we need to stretch the meaning of para- a bit more, so that it can mean not "counter" or "along side of" but actually "beyond" or "exceeding". In this sense, the medieval German doctor and alchemist Philip von Hohenheim styled himself Paracelsus, because his cures exceeded those of the first century Roman doctor Celsus. And a pain of exceeding sharpness is known as a paroxysm where the oxy- root is shared by "oxygen", a gas with a sharp smell, and "oxymoron", indicating an inappropriate combination of the "sharp" and stupid.

There remain some oddball words that can be explained, but just barely.

Parable and parabola both come from the Greek meaning "beside throw", and while you can almost understand what they might be getting at with parable, the relationship to a parabola is hard to see. Moreover, the Greeks had a technical meaning for parabolas, hyperboles, and ellipses in both a mathematical sense (as particular geometric shapes) and rhetoric, as particular rhetorical devices. The actual derivation of the term parabola refers to a mathematical definition of the generation of a parabola from a line, and is momentarily too involved to get into here.

Another mathematical term, parameter, clearly means "beside measure", but this etymology doesn't really illuminate the current meaning of the word.

Paregoric supposedly comes from "beside the crowd", where agora is the name for the marketplace or gathering spot, and originally indicating a speech meant to soothe the public.

The Pareclete is the Holy Spirit, who was available to be "along side called" and keep us company and counsel after Jesus left the earth. A paragogue is an "along side lead" and refers to cases where a speaker alters the pronunciation of a word by adding a sound to the end, such as by saying "drownded" for "drowned."

Sadly, many words still escape our net. I was sure that Paraguay meant "the other side of the river", and what made that more wonderful was then, of course, Uruguay could be this side of that river. I already knew that Paradise comes from Persian roots older than Greek, and that the para- here is closer to the sense of peri-, meaning "around", because Paradise was a garden with a wall around it. Finally, the oil paraffin got its name from Latin, parum [little] and affinis [related to], referring to the fact that it had "little affinity" for other liquids.

Written by John Burkardt,
Thanks to Hugh MacMillan for some appropriate medical definitions!

Last modified on 04 May 2006.