Bill Casselman

Increase your English vocabulary by understanding the roots of words like hydroponic and geopony

At the Wording Desk

The word is in daily headlines: “Local Cops Raid Hydroponic Grow-Op.” “Arrested Hydroponicist Claims To Suffer 53 Diseases Requiring Strains of Medical Marijuana from Separate Plants.”

Hydroponics is growing plants without standard soil, sometimes in nutrient-rich water alone, sometimes with plants embedded in plastic holding trays or standing upright in beds of sand, gravel, peat, or inert media like perlite or coconut husks perfused with water-dissolved fertilizers. Hydroponics is part of hydroculture.

Acquainted with terms like hydroelectric, most of us catch hydro, both a bound and a free morpheme, meaning ‘water,’ but what is that ponic root?

The word hydroponics was coined as recently as 1937, the year when the learned journal Science in its February number reported “ ‘Hydroponics’, which was suggested by Dr. W. A. Setchell, of the University of California, appears to convey the desired meaning better than any of a number of words considered.”

Hydroponics < Greek ὕδωρ, ὕδατος hudor, hudatos ‘water’ and its common combing form of ὑδρο- hudro, hydro + Greek πόνος ponos ‘work, labour, bodily exertion, exercise.’

In their infancy, sciences are paranoid and nervous and wish to appear mightily learned. Often, new sciences flood their earliest publications, their breathless initial pronunciamientos, with a protective and obscuring outgush of high-falutin’ technical verbiage. Sociology’s birth is an exemplary instance of this use of big words to disguise little thoughts. In a similar manner, geopony began as a very fancy wordlet revived from Hellenistic Greek by snobbish French agronomists late in the eighteenth century. They did not want to admit they were studying farm management or rural land use or — Gaia forbid! — common farming practices. Mais non! They were sober geoponists intent upon the deeper delvings of geopony. The old Greek etymon just sitting there awaiting their pompousness was Greek γεωπονία geoponia ‘farming techniques’ < Greek combining form geo- ‘earth’ + Greek πόνος ponos ‘labour, work’ + Greek -ia common noun suffix often indicating an abstract noun. Note that the Greek word is down-to-earth literally, since it means earth-work. But borrowing it into another language as a slimy blob of grandiloquence is — shoddy.

But is geopony still on stern and solemn word duty as euphemistic balderdash? You betcha! As recently as 1981, we read of a “scientific” farmer referred to as pursuing “the geoponic profession.” What a load of horse manure!

Still widely used is this pigment mix of zinc sulphide and barium sulphate. Industrial uses include cheap white pigment in paint, linoleum and printing ink. Lithopone as filler is added to pulp slurry in the making of thick paper.

lithopone =Greek λίθος lithos ‘stone’ + Greek πόνος ponos ‘work, product of labour’

This word means a theory of evil. It is chiefly a technical term in theology, made up of Greek πονηρός poneros ‘evil, doing injury’ + Greek suffix –λογία –logia giving the hundreds of science names ending in-ology ‘study of, body of knowledge of the subject named in the first morpheme of the compound, e.g. geology, mineralogy. Why is it always –ology, except in a few words like genealogy, mineralogy and tetralogy? Because /o/ is the combining vowel of all declensions of Greek nouns, and the Romance languages, English, and most European languages borrowing or confecting compound Greek words for science, follow the Greek rule.

The extended form of ponos to make the adjective poneros is an example of that adjectival Greek suffix –eros often being in Greek of augmentative force. In other words, poneros meant 'really laboring mightily' so that the outcome of your work became too heavy, too onerous, too negative in force, hence: evil.

While I might wish to utter a trendy exit speech about tiptoeing off to check on my geoponical, hydroponical grow-op out in the barn, I must confess that, as a barnless control freak, I never permit myself to ingest the miasmic, cannabinol-sodden effluvium of a sinsemilla doobie. I have no need of anything psychoactive. I am already psycho.

Bill Casselman, August 09, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman