Oct 5, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: The Genres

Today I thought we'd take a look at some genre names. A warning: reading this might ruin the word "romance" for you, just so you know.

Classics are from the 1610s, meaning "highest level of quality," from Latin classicus, "relating to the highest class of Romans" and, hence, superior. Wow. That's so snooty. Bookwise, the word originally referred to the works of the ancient Roman and Greek writers, so that's your competition if you want to write a classic. No pressure.

Fantasy comes from Greek phantasia "power of imagination," from phatazesthai "imagine to yourself," from phantos, "visible," from phainesthai "appear, imagine, have visions." The sense of "whimsical vision" is from pre-1400s, and the fiction genre from 1949.

Science fiction as a term was coined in 1929, though there is isolated use from the 1850s. The word science comes from Latin scientia "knowledge," from scire "to know," probably originally "to separate one thing from another." It's related to scindere "to cut, divide." Fiction, on the other hand, comes from Latin fictionem "a fashioning or feigning," from fingere "to fashion, shape," originally meaning "to knead, form out of clay."

Mystery is from Greek mysterion "a secret rite or doctrine," from mystes "one who has been initiated, from myein "to shut, close" your eyes or mouth, probably?

Horror comes from Latin horror "dread, veneration, religious awe," literally, a shaking, trembling, from PIE root ghers- "to bristle."

Humour is is a funny one: the word comes from Latin umor "body fluid." Bear with me, it makes sense (kind of). In ancient and medieval times, the humours of the body (blood, phlegm, choler, black bile) were thought to affect moods (and an imbalance to cause diseases). From there, we get to the "mood, temporary state of mind." The funny sense is from the 1680s.

Romance is from the 1300s, "from Old French romanz "a story of the adventures of a knight or hero." It was originally an adverb "in the vernacular language," from Latin romanice scribere "to write in a Romance language." The romance thing is of course from Romanus "Roman."Okay, when I think romance, I don't picture a bunch of ancient Romans in battle gear or togas and stuff. Head spinning. Seriously.

And here's bonus one, my favourite weird fantasy genre: slipstream. Love the word, love the stories. Slip comes from Middle Low German  slippen "to glide, slide," from PIE *sleib- "slimy, sticky, slippery." Stream  is more ordinary, from Old English stream, "a course of water," origins in the PIE root *sreu "to flow." The word is as slippery as the genre. Try to define it, I dare you.




  1. Sometimes if you hurt the very end of your elbow—ow!—you say, "I hurt my funny bone!" because the Latin name for the arm bone is the humorous. (dang spellcheck)

  2. Yep, the humerus is a funny bone :)


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