On “Pseudo-“

Daniel Aureliano Newman © 2007

Pseudo‘s got staying power. And this staying power, illustrating one of the many similarities between language and biological evolution, is the paradoxical product of remarkable conservatism on one hand, and on the other extreme flexibility. Pseudo- (or pseud-) has been with us a long time, originating from the Ancient Greek ψευδο- (or ψευδ-). Like its Latin spelling, pseudo-’s original sense of “false, pretended, counterfeit, spurious, or sham” has been conserved in many languages, including English. It’s really one of our most remarkable words, and a powerful communicator of scorn and insult.

Its first record in English dates from the 15th century, when Wyclif adapted ‘pseudo-’ words from the Latin Bible and from Greek. Writers began tagging pseudo- onto native English nouns in the 16th century (pseudo-prophet), and adjectives in the 17th century (pseudo-religious). During the Enlightenment, pseudo- was imported into scientific language, meaning “apparently but not really.” In such usage, pseudo- loses its derogatory implication; instead of revealing deceit or falsity, it draws attention to analogical resemblance (pseudopodia, the temporary limb-like extensions of amoebae), to relatedness (pseudelephant, the original term for mastodon), or to illusory similarity (pseudoreplication of sampling units in experimental design).

In most of its popular and specialized uses, pseudo- fills a semantic niche unoccupied by other affixes (like “non-”) or adjectives (like “fake”) that denote falsity or deceit.  In popular usage, it often implies “almost, but not quite.”  Hence a pseudo-conversation is a verbal exchange falling short of a certain standard. But unlike “quasi-”, itself a good prefix, pseudo- implies dishonesty or pretense. In scientific language, it allows analogical relationships to be made evident without implying actual homologies; for example, pseudoparasite clearly advertises itself as referring to something that may be mistaken for a parasite. (We’ve all met such people, those who appear to be using you but turn out to be perfectly harmless and nice, even helpful… but then of course there are those of the opposite persuasion, the pseudo-charitable.) Anyway, the prefix helps avoid a needless proliferation of new terms. Of course, usage rules are not without complications:  pseudoparthenogenesis actually refers to a form of parthenogenesis.

Early written uses of pseudo- are primarily religious, but satirists, critics, and polemicists seem to have recognized its potential quickly. Almost infinitely promiscuous, it affixes itself seamlessly to native English words and loanwords from almost any language. The OED lists over 200 entries prefixed with pseudo-, not counting dozens listed under the prefix’s own entry. It can be attached to adjectives (pseudoperpetual) and to nouns both concrete (pseudovolcano) and abstract (pseudoexistence). It may be used with words denoting a person, his personality type, his actions, or his possessions: thus an attention-seeking pseudo-martyr might resort to pseudocide (“a purposely failed suicide attempt”) with a sharpened pseudo-phallus, but his troubles are only beginning if his analyst turns out to be a pseudo-Freud.

Like the suffix –ism, pseudo- seems to have inspired English speakers; perhaps the ageless need for terms of debasement has guaranteed its popularity. The nature of the words it is affixed to may reflect trends in popular anxieties: pseudo-apostle had its heyday in the 15th century; pseudonymuncle (“a petty or insignificant person who writes under a pseudonym”) in 1875; pseudo-communist in the 1940s and ‘50s. Today’s climate calls for pseudoscience or pseudopundit.

Pseudo- probably owes some of its popularity to a long history in English, which makes it a failsafe tool (compare trendy but easily misused prefixes like ‘über’) and a good candidate for innovative affixation. The interactive online lexicon, http://www.pseudodictionary.com, attests to this prefix’s transmissibility, listing creative constructions such as pseudoklepto (“someone who ‘steals’ things intending to return them later”) and pseudold-school (“old idea or design, remarketed as new, such as the VW New Beetle”). Though many of these are silly or unwieldy, some could actually catch on. A Google search yields additional idiolectic and specialized constructions—some simple (pseudofascist, pseudophat) and others simply superb (pseudo-random quanta, pseudopseudohyperparathyroidism).

It is hardly surprising that such a prolific affix would adopt an independent meaning.  In relation to false claims of divinity, pseudo has been recorded in English since the 15th century, and has since expanded to mark affectation or insincerity in general. Since the 1960s, pseud (adj. and n.), pseudish (adj.), and pseudy (adj.) have become established as well. Novelty being such a crucial element for effective insults, the semantic niche of a deprecating term is rarely filled, and remains open to further innovation. Hence pseudocool, pseudoanarchistic or pseudostud.

 Works cited and consulted

 Hurlbert, Stuart H. Pseudoreplication and the Design of Ecological Field Experiments.Ecological Monographs 54.2 (1984): 187-211

“pseud, adj. & n. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191406.

“pseudish, adj. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/ 50191419.

“pseudo-, comb. form. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191423.

“pseudo, adj. & n. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191422.

“pseudo*.” Lexicons of Early Modern English. Ed. Ian Lancashire. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Library and University of Toronto Press, 2007. Date consulted: 27 Sept. 2007. URL: leme.library.utoronto.ca.

“pseudocide, n1.OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191436.

“pseudoklepto.” Pseudodictionary.com. Date consulted:  27 Sept. 2007. http://www.pseudodictionary.com/search.php?letter=p&browsestart=1520.

“pseudold-school.” Pseudodictionary.com. Date consulted:  27 Sept. 2007. http://www.pseudodictionary.com/search.php?letter=p&browsestart=1520.

“pseudonymuncle, n.” September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/50191476.

“pseudy, adj. OED Online. September 2007. Oxford University Press. 27 Sept. 2007. http://dictionary.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/cgi/entry/30008380.

Rudin, Norah.  Dictionary of Modern Biology. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 1997.


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