When I Use A Word …: Got an ology?

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 04 January 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:f
  1. Jeff Aronson
  1. clinical pharmacologist in Oxford

    There are about 400 different -ologies listed in Chambers Dictionary, from acar- to zym-, from o- to psychoneuroimmun-. The Greek word logos, from legein meaning to say or read, meant a word, either a word used to express a thought or, by extension, the thought itself. An apologos, literally something that comes from speaking, was a tale, and an apologia was a defence, which is what Plato's Apology was: an account of Socrates' defence of himself. “I apologise,” my daughter once told me; “I'm not sorry–I apologise.”

    There are a few English words in which -ology refers to the simple meaning, a word: battology, futile repetition in writing or speech; cacology, bad choice of words or faulty pronunciation; dittology, a double reading or interpretation. In one case it means a syllable: haplology is the loss of a syllable from a word because of the similar sound of a neighbouring syllable; so, mineralology becomes mineralogy, and mammalology becomes mammalogy.

    But in about 90% of cases -ology means the study, theory, art, or science of a subject: dactyliology, the study of finger rings; deltiology, picture postcards; vexillology, flags. There is even an -ology for the Turin shroud: sindonology. Unfortunately, there is no ololology (the study of ß blockers).

    In some cases the -ology has lost its function. Aetiology, for example, should mean the study of the causes of things. However, its original meaning was the assignment of a cause or reason or the reason itself. Only later did it come to mean the science or philosophy of causation. Nowadays it just means “cause,” which is the word I prefer to use. Similarly, symptomatology had two roughly contemporaneous meanings, dating from about the turn of the 18th century: the study of symptoms and the symptoms themselves; nowadays it is used to mean just “symptoms.” In contrast, methodology originally meant the science of methods, but nowadays its meaning has weakened and it is often used to mean just “methods.” I estimate that about 90% of the “methodologies” and “symptomatologies” that you read in scientific papers could be replaced by “methods” and “symptoms.” Why don't we use the simpler words?

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