Where do all those strange words come from? Anne Renwick discusses how she often uses Greek and Latin roots to name her various contraptions.


Hello, I’m Anne Renwick, steampunk romance author taking you behind the scenes of The Elemental Steampunk Series in my podcast Into the Laboratory. You can find episode show notes, at intothelaboratory.com or for more information about my books and free short stories, visit anneenwick.com that’s Anne with an e. Welcome to my laboratory.

Hello, this is Anne Renwick, steampunk romance author. Welcome into the laboratory. In this podcast, podcast number three, I’m going to answer a frequently asked question. How do you come up with all those strange names for the various things in your novels? Well, the simple answer is that I’m using Greek and Latin. For example, in my book, The Golden Spider, the spider is called a neurachnid. We break that down. We can see that neurachnid has two parts. Neur, from neuro, which means nerve, and arachnid, which means spider, so it’s a nerve spider.

Where are those roots coming from? Greek and Latin. Why Greek and Latin word roots? Because their use has a long history in biology and medicine and much medical vocabulary originates from these two languages. So much so that there used to be a requirement for medical students to have studied and perhaps even passed tests in these two languages before they could be admitted to study medicine. Now the requirements were all over the place. There were different requirements in the United States from say Britain and France or Germany, but pretty much every single school required at least Latin, sometimes both Latin and Greek. Since my stories are mostly based in Great Britain, I looked up the requirements for British medical school and what I found is that an 1892, which is a little bit past the timeframe in which I’m writing, but pretty close, the requirements in 1892 were that a student who wanted to go into medical school had to study the subjects, English, Latin mathematics, and by mathematics they meant algebra, geometry, something called elementary mechanics and they also had a requirement that the potential student have also studied one of the following. Greek is the first option mentioned, but they also include French, German, Italian, or any other modern language. They include something called logic. I’m not sure exactly what they meant by that, but they also wanted their students to possibly have taken botany or zoology or elementary chemistry.

So back to Greek and Latin word roots. Now most of us have been exposed to Greek or Latin word roots in high school. At some point, possibly even earlier, you all had the English teacher who wanted you to study vocabulary words, learn to spell them, use them in a sentence, that kind of thing. And if you’ve studied for the SAT, here in United States, chances are you might have run into some Greek and Latin word words. They’re trying to teach you these so that you can figure out unfamiliar vocabulary words during the test.

Okay, so we all use Latin and Greek word roots in English, probably daily. And in fact I’m willing to bet a number of you who are listening are listing some of these very words in your head right now. So let’s pick one for example. So one that springs to mind is Aquaman. We have aqua, which is Latin for water, and then we have man, which you might not think about it, but it’s actually a Latin word root. Man means hand. We are handy man. Where does that come from? That comes from our ability to manipulate things with our hands because we have something called an opposable thumb and here we are off on our first tangent. What’s an opposable thumb? Your thumb, if you, if you’re not driving, you can look at your hand right now. Your thumb is able to touch your index finger, your middle finger, your ring finger and your pinky. So that’s what we mean opposable, in opposition to. That gives primates a really cool ability to grab things. If you think of your pet cat, your pet dog, some other creature living in your house with you, they can’t do that. They can’t touch the equivalent of their thumb to their other fingers or rather toes. But there are certain other animals that can do something like this. They have what we would call an opposable digit. Apparently some frogs can do this. I’m aware that Kuala bears have an opposable digit. Panda bears have an opposable digit and possums. And a number of birds also have a kind of opposable digit.

Okay, so let’s look at another word, Philadelphia. That’s where I went to college. So I kept hearing brotherly love. It’s the city of brotherly love. Where’s this coming from? Yes, Greek roots. We have philos, which means loving in Greek. You may also have seen the suffix phile, P, H, I, L, E, and we also have a Greek word coming in here, adelphos, which means brother. So we have Phila, Delphia, city of brotherly love. Now knowing that phila or philos means loving. We can look at other words that are related. For example, the name Philip. Phil. We’ve got loving there again, and we have “ip”. What is that coming from? It’s a shortened form of hippos, which is the Greek word for horse. So Philip means lover of horses. Now we can take this even further and start playing with some more fun terms. Necrophiliac. Does everyone know what that is? If not, I’m gonna let you go look that one up on your own. So we have Necro, which is Greek for death. So necrophiliac literally means death lover. Now the meaning is a little bit more than that. So I’ll let you look that up on your own time. And from necro you may have also run into the term necropolis, which is literally a city of the dead, necro, death, opolis city. So Necropolis is the city of the dead or a cemetery.

And now backing up to philos, we also have a little bit more medical term. Let’s start leaning in that direction. The term hemophiliac. Hemo is Greek for blood. So a hemophiliac is literally a lover of blood. Now the first place my mind goes is vampires, right? But of course that would be wrong. So hemophiliac, lover of blood, the person doesn’t clot and therefore needs extra blood. So they love to get more blood. Now, well, hemophilia is a horrible disease to have. It is very fascinating in terms of genetics and its history. In fact, when I first learned a bit in 10th grade biology, again with my favorite biology teacher, Mrs Campbell, I carried this new found curiosity about the topic over to my 10th grade English class where the teacher, perhaps to her great regret, allowed us to choose our own topics to write a term paper about. I chose hemophilia. I started off researching the genetics and the biology of it, I quickly found myself drawn into the historical significance that hemophilia had played. Nikolai, the only male child born to the current tsar and tsarina, Nicolas and Alexandria, had hemophilia. If we look up the family tree, we find out that Nikolai was actually the grandchild of Queen Victoria. Now, Nikolai is not the only grandchild of Queen Victoria who developed hemophilia. And looking back, we have determined that the mutation for hemophilia in her family tree originated with Queen Victoria herself. So in any case, Alexandria was, understandably, desperate to find some sort of cure for her, her son who kept having accidents, who kept bleeding and bleeding, and it was driving her insane. So in the end she turned to someone named Rasputin who was sort of an insane monk who made all sorts of promises that he could heal her child. And if you read about the mad monk Rasputin, fascinating story, Rasputin had such a terrible reputation within the court that it is speculated that he was one of the main reasons that the Romanov dynasty was overthrown. Shortly after his assassination, which by some accounts was a rather prolonged in death – he was poisoned, he was shot, he was drowned, he eventually froze to death – all of the above, believe it or not, that after he finally died a few days later, that they, um, the Romanov dynasty was overthrown. I’ll try to remember to throw in a link in the show notes so that you can read more about Nicholas and Alexandria and their son and the mad monk Rasputin at a later point.

In any case, back to our Greek and Latin roots. Other words you’re familiar with, bicycle and tricycle. Bi=two. Tri=three. Bi and tri basically come from Latin, which sort of evolved a little from Greek. And cycle, that’s the word root for wheel. It also means it goes around. So bicycle, tricycle touching how many wheels and that they go around.

Another word you’re familiar with, telescope. Tele means far comes from the Greek. And scope means a viewing instrument also from the Greek. So telescope is literally a viewing instrument that allows you to see far.

Here’s one that’s a favorite of my husband’s sophomore, the second year of high school, the second year of college. Let’s break it down. Sopho more. Both come from Greek word roots, Soph means wise. And moros means foolish. So literally sophomore translates as a wise fool. And if you think about it, moros that’s the same root that we get moron from. So wise fool. This is also related to the word sophomoric, which means lacking in maturity, taste or judgment and is also related to the saying “A little wisdom is a dangerous thing”.

Okay, moving on and shifting ourselves back in the direction of biology and medicine. Once again, we can also look at the word amphibian. This is one of my favorites because amphibian, amphibious, means to live a double life. Ooh, cool. So where do amphibians start? They start as eggs. They start living in the pond. Think of a frog. The frog lays its eggs. They’re floating in that gelatinous sort of mass by the edge of a pond. They start off their life as tadpoles. They have gills, they have tails. They swim around in the pond. Then they go through metamorphosis. They start to grow legs. Their tail starts to resorb. They come to the edge of the pond and crawl up on land, grow themselves a full set of four legs and proceed to breathe with lungs. So they have lived a double life, hence the term amphibian.

Okay. Sticking with our animal theme, we move on for the kraken enthusiasts here. We have the term cephalopod. If we break that down into cephalo and pod, what we have are two Greek words, meaning head and foot. Cephalo means head, skull or brain. Pod means foot. Now you’ve probably heard the Latin version for foot as well, which is ped like pedal. You use a pedal for your tricycle your bicycle. Right. Okay. So we have a cephalopod, a head foot creature and those include the octopus, the squid, the nautilus, and in our steampunk world, the kraken. Um, while we’re on pod, we also have the gastro pod, which literally means stomach foot. These are the snails and the slugs.

Okay. Moving on to another term that has been fairly recently in the news, we had the Zika virus and there were all the warnings. If you’ve been infected, please contact… And babies were being born with smaller heads than usual. They were being born with something called microcephaly. So let’s break that down. Micro as you know, means small. Cephalo or Cephalic in this case refers to the head. So they were being born with small heads. Two other medically related terms are acephalic and anacephaly. A or Ana means without, not, lacking. It’s a Greek word root. So if we have something that is acephalic, it has no head. Anacephaly could almost mean the same thingl except in medical terms it’s used to mean missing a part of. So if someone is acephalic, they have no head. If they’re anacephalic, they are missing a good portion of their brain or their head.

So other terms you’ve no doubt run into a microscope, which if we break it down into its roots, we get small see, your ability to see small things like a microbe is a small life, micro small. The B in microbe is a fraction leftover from the word root bio.

Another Greek word you might have run into at the mall is soma the store. Soma snatched their name right straight from the Greek. Soma means body. They sell bras, underwear, sleepwear, loungewear clothing you put right next to your body. Now with my biology background, I see Soma, the first word I think of is somatic. Somatic cells. Somatic cells are sort of the general body cells as opposed to those of the germline, more commonly known as eggs or sperm, depending upon your sex. So for me, this turns into gene therapy. One of the things often discussed is will this gene therapy affect the germline cells, or will it only affect those cells which are somatic? The body? Because if you think about it, if you’re going to insert a brand new gene into your body, do you necessarily want it getting into your sperm or your egg? Because once it gets into sperm or eggs, it can be transmitted to the next generation, and it will be an all their cells everywhere. Henceforward down the family tree.

Okay, so moving on, since we’re in medicine, another word root I’m sure you’ve run into is -itis. I. T. I. S. When place did the end of a word in the medical profession, it’s referring to inflammation. Perhaps you’ve heard of appendicitis. That’s the inflammation of your appendix. If that goes down, they’re going to be wheeling you off for surgery. You might’ve had tonsillitis, inflammation of your tonsils. If you’ve lost your voice, you had laryngitis, the inflammation of your larynx. If you hear the term Myocarditis. Myo is the word root from muscle. Card is the word root for heart. Itis inflammation, Myo Card Itus. Muscle of your heart is inflamed. That’s not a good thing. You may have heard the term sinusitis, inflammation of your sinuses. Pancreatitis, inflammation of your pancreas. Now you’re getting into potential enzyme problems. This can be a very serious condition. As can be hepatitis. We run into hepatitis in my story, In Pursuit of Dragons. It’s the condition our hero arrives with. Hepatitis. Hepa refers to the liver. So if you hear your hepatic functions are impaired, they’re talking about your liver functions. So hepatitis, inflammation of the liver.

Other medical terms you’ve probably run into include the ologies, right? Biology. Ology, study of bio life. Biology means the study of life. Well, if you’re walking through a hospital, you’ve got all these different departments all ending in -ology. You have gynecology. Gyn is the Greek word root for woman. So gynecology, the study of biological functions of women’s anatomy. So then we have pathology. Path is Greek for disease. So the study of disease. Cardiology, cardio, heart, a Greek root. Cardiology study of the heart. Pulmonology. Pulmo is a Latin word, root for lung. So we have the study of lungs. If someone needs to have open heart surgery, oftentimes they’ll get what’s called a cardiopulmonary bypass so that the surgeon can have access to the heart while the patient still continues to have their blood oxygenated. So cardiopulmonary bypass, heart-lung bypass, that combines both Greek and Latin words, and it’s the method by which my octopus works in The Iron Fin, cardiopulmonary bypass. But you’ll have to read that story to learn more about that little bit of strangeness.

So basically what I’m saying is yes, and biology and medicine, it’s all Latin and Greek, but once you’ve been working in the fields long enough, you start to get a sense, and you get a hold of these roots, which you accumulate over years and years and you start to see words and you start to almost be able to guess at what they mean without having been formally taught that particular word.

So coming back to my books, when I sat down and needed to start naming these strange semi biological contraptions I was creating, I instinctively turned to Greek and Latin word roots. acousticcept is a device worn in the ear that allows one of my agents to hear a transmitter at a different location. So acoustico is Greek for to hear or to listen. Cept is Latin for to take or receive. So we have acousticcept, a listening receiver. Likewise we have the acousticotransmitter, which is the device that transmits the sound to the acousticcept. So Acoustico, hear, listen. Trans is Latin for across or through, and mit is Latin for send. So we have a listening, hearing transmission device that sent. Acousticotransmitter.

When we meet Lady Amanda, we find her going out to her laboratory and she fires up her aetheroscope, which is a microscope that allows a really high resolution by using a vacuum chamber and something called aether. Aether is something very steampunk. It’s a was thought to be the substance that permeated empty space, a sort of fifth element when they were doing alchemical studies. And this got carried into the 18th and 19th century to sort of, um, describe the substance that allowed light waves to be carried through space. So that’s aether. And then we have scope, which we discussed earlier, which is for seeing, so aetheroscope means using this strange element or this substance to allow my characters to see things better. It’s sort of a way of putting advanced microscope techniques in the hands of someone in the 19th century.

All right, now we arrive at neruachnid. This is a programmable clockwork spider that’s going to leave us our nerves. It’s small about the size of a small coin in your palm, and its word roots come from neuro, which is Greek for nerve and arachnae, which is Greek for spider. So neurachnid is a nerve spider. This was incidentally the working title of The Golden Spider. When I was writing it, I had it called Neuracnids. That changed for obvious reasons.

In the story, we also have our hero Lord Thornton using a particular drug to help calm the nerve damage that’s been done to his leg. This drug I named somnic and somni comes from the Latin word somnus for sleep. So he’s basically putting the nerve in his leg to sleep so he doesn’t feel the pain.

And now there’s also a creature that makes its appearance in The Golden Spider. The pteryform. That sounds suspiciously like pterydactyls, I’ll bet you’re thinking. You’re exactly right. So ptery – p, t, e, r, y, is Greek for anything pertaining to a wing. Pterygo. And we have form, which is Latin for having the shape of having the form of. So a pteryform is a wing shaped creature. The word pterydactyl translates literally as wing finger. If you’ve ever seen pictures of those leathery creatures flying through the skies, they’re a big wing and they’ve got those little hooks or claws or fingers on the tips of their wings. Now I am well aware that scientists are finding out that a lot of these flying dinosaurs probably had feathers and that’s really cool. But in my world I decided to make sure that the pteryforms are leathery because I kinda like that sort of creepiness of them flying through the sky. More like a bat wing with skin instead of feathers like birds.

So there are a few other Greek and Latin word roots that have snuck into The Golden Spider. Ferrous replacements. One of the characters is going to require procedure that’s going to basically cut off his limb and scrape the muscle away from the bone and replace it with a mechanical limb. So a ferrous replacement is a limb that contains iron, from the Latin word ferrum, iron. If you’ve looked at a periodic table, at some point, you will notice that the symbol for iron is Fe. It’s coming from the Latin word ferrum.

Okay. Another one you run into is myotech. Myo as I mentioned earlier in the podcast is the Greek word root that means muscle. So anytime you run into myo, you’re dealing with a muscle situation. Myotech is artificial muscle.

There’s also the word amatiflora. That’s the name given to a flower that our hero and heroine are trying to find because they need the blooms to create a nerve calming agent. So amat, a m a t, is Greek for love, and flora is Latin for flower. So amatiflora means a love flower.

If we look in The Silver Skull, we have a few less made up words, but we have a few doozies. One of them is a zoetomatic. What is that? That’s thatbattery powered mechanical creature, that we run into the hedgehog. Zoe is Greek for life. Matos is sort of related to the -matic ending, meaning willing. So life willing. Zoetomatic. You may, the word automatic probably springs to mind. Auto being self. So something is automatic. It is literally self willing.

The osforare apparatus that we run into in The Silver Skull is a particularly nasty looking contraption. So let’s break that down. Os means bone. For is Latin for sort of to bore or to drill. Forare is Latin for perforation. So this contraption, this apparatus, actually drills holes into bone.

I also used Greek and Latin words to name two drugs that you run into in The Silver Skull. The first one is crinlozyme. That’s a drug that’s going to immobilize a person for up to 24 hours. Crin means to secrete, such as a gland might give a secretion, and zyme comes from the Greek for ferment, but it’s a word root we often see used in biology in terms of enzyme, a protein that’s going to catalyze a chemical reaction. So a crinlozyme is just a fancy way of saying an enzyme secretion.

The second drug is veritasium and that came from two sort of sources. Ver is the Latin word root for truth. And tasium sort of reminded me of serum, as in truth serum, and it’s also sort of a suffix that’s found on a lot of nouns that are borrowed from the Latin. So veritasium, truth serum, also a muscle relaxant.

Now let’s take a look at two more words from The Iron Fin. I needed my navy men to be able to work underwater and so they needed some sort of breathing equipment. The breathing equipment ended up being loosely based on the actual rebreather that scrubs the carbon dioxide from the exhaled air. So that there’s no bubbles that come to the surface, so no one could detect their presence. So I had to sort of fuss with mine a little and look at the history of SCUBA gear and diving equipment in the Victorian era. And so this particular breather uses a barium hydroxide carbon dioxide scrubber. So I named it the aquaspira breather that’s aqua for water, as we spoke about with Aquaman, and spira for breath, a Latin term. The second word root in The Iron Fin is the arthroflex. My hero has had some damage done to his knee. An artificial joint has been placed in, so we have the arthro flex. Arthro is Greek for joint, and flex is Latin for bend, so we have the joint bend and artificial knee replacement in the Victorian era.

Hopefully this has provided you with a little insight into how I go about naming all the various strange things in my books. While you can’t exactly go to Google and type in the word and expect to find a definition, you might have a chance at breaking it down, if you look at it in terms of Greek and Latin word roots. Another way, which is probably a whole lot easier, is to visit my author page where I have, under the books tab, something called The Compendium: Books Under a Microscope where I list the characters, the locations, the technology, biology, and any other strange terms that pop up in my books. They’re listed like a glossary. You can look at the term, you can read my definition of it. If there’s links outside of my website, you can click on those and read yet even more. I will warn you that this particular compilation of terms will contain spoilers. It’s not meant to be something you have to have at your elbow while you’re reading my books. I do my best to write them so that you never need to consult a dictionary so that you can fall into the story and just enjoy the adventure. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed our foray into Greek and Latin roots.

Next time on podcast number four, I’ll be talking about the lost rivers of London and the role they play in The Golden Spider.

Thank you for listening today. I hope you found it interesting. If so, you can find my backlist episodes and show notes@intothelaboratory.com where you can also contact me with any questions you’d like answered or simply let me know what you thought about the show if you’d like to try my books. The Tin Rose is a short story available everywhere. Rust and Steam is an exclusive short story for my newsletter subscribers. You can find both at annerenwick.com forward slash free hyphen books. Remember that’s Anne with an “e”. If you’d like to connect, you can find me on Facebook and in my readers group, the Department of Cryptobiology. See you at the next laboratory meeting.