Hippo Words

By Maeve Maddox

A reader writes:

My office mates call me a hippocrite.

When I found this misspelling on a chat site, I started wondering if there might be a connection between hypocrite and the “hippo” words n English.

The prefix “hypo” is from Greek and means “under.” In most English words it’s pronounced with a long i as in hypodermic. The pronunciation of hypocrite is an exception.

hypodermic: hypo + derma (skin) – a needle that goes under the skin.
hypothermic: hypo + therme (heat) – body temperature under normal.
hypoglycemia: hypo + glykis (sweet) + haima (blood) – sugar in the blood under normal
hypotenuse: hypo + teinein (to stretch – the right angle “stretches under”

Things start getting complicated with the “under” connection when we get to hypochondria and hypocrisy.

In Late Latin hypochondria meant “the abdomen,” hypo+chondros “cartilage of the breastbone.” In the 17th century hypochondria came to mean “depression or melancholy illness without cause.” This usage reflected an ancient belief that melancholy originated in the “hypchondria.” Then, in the 19th century, hypochondria acquired its present meaning of “any illness without a specific cause.”

hypocrisy: the “crisy” part of this word derives from a Greek word that meant “to sift, to differentiate.” The sense of “sift” evolved from “to separate gradually” to “to answer” and then “to answer a fellow actor on the stage.” From there it came to mean “acting on the stage.” Everyone knows that acting is pretending. Hypocrisy is pretending to be one kind of person when in fact you’re another kind. A hypocrite is a pretender.

The prefix “hippo” is from the Greek word for “horse.”

hippopotamus: hippo + potamus, “river” – river horse
hippodrome: hippo + dromos, “course” – a place to race horses

The word hippogriff combines hippo with griffin.

A griffin is “a fabulous animal typically having head, forepart, and wings like those of an eagle but with visible usually erect ears, forelegs like the legs of an eagle, and body, hind legs, and tail like those of a lion.”

A hippogriff is a griffin with the hindquarters of a horse.

Some other Hippos
Augustine of Hippo: early Christian Father. He was bishop of Hippo in Algeria. The city there now is called Annaba.

Hippocrates: the “father of medicine,” author of the Hippocratic Oath for doctors.

picture of a griffin
picture of a hippogriff
text of the ancient Hippocratic Oath

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3 Responses to “Hippo Words”

  • codebeard

    Interesting.

    I had always thought be a hypocrite was to criticise others for something that you do yourself. As such, I had supposed the etymology to be something like “under critical”; that is, you were not critical enough of your self.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    It would not be excessive to add a bit of Greek language (or “classical Athenian dialect”, more precisely), from where those words above came from, and actually see the difference between those two greek prefixes:

    ὑπο (usually transliterated “hypo”) is an adverb that can mean “under”, “at”, “by”.

    ὁ ἵππος (usually transliterated “hó híppos” or only “hippo”) is a noun for “horse”. Greeks already use this noun to form other words, using the steam “ιππο-”, like ἱππο-πόταμος (hippo-pótamos, “river horse”), ἱππό-κομος (“horse-hairy, with a horse hair”) and many others.

    It might be worthy to notice that there’s no “h” in Greek. This consonant appears only when we transliterate greek words that has a “rough breathing” stress on a beginning vowel; so we use “h” to mark its “strong/rough breathing” pronunciation, quite like the “h” sound in english “hot”, for example.

  • Karin-Marijke Vis

    Thanks Maeve, interesting article!

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