The Suffix -strophe

By Mark Nichol

Do the words apostrophe and catastrophe have anything in common besides a couple of syllables? What, if anything, does a punctuation mark have to do with a disaster?

The words, taken from Greek, share an element derived from the Greek verb strephein, which means “turn.” Apostrophe, meaning “turn from,” alludes to the fact that an apostrophe signals that one or more letters in a word have been omitted, or “turned away.” (The symbol later came to be used to identify possessives—and, erroneously, plurals, though some publications persist in the otherwise obsolete style of apostrophizing plural numerals, as in “That style went out in the 1950’s,” or abbreviations, as in “This rule applies to most M.D.’s.” The former style is unnecessary, and the latter approach is rendered unnecessary by simply eliminating periods from capitalized abbreviations.)

Catastrophe, meanwhile, means “overturning,” and refers to a devastating reversal in fortune. (In Greek tragedy, the term applied to the turning point in a play.) Scholar and novelist J. R. R. Tolkien coined an antonym, eucatastrophe, to denote a “good turn,” or the point at which an unexpectedly favorable outcome occurs, though his coinage is obscure. The term peripeteia, meaning “turning point” (in English also referred to as peripety), already exists, but it can refer to either a positive or a negative event. (Although a deus ex machina—the term literally means “god from the machine” and refers to a plot point representing sudden intervention that produces a happy ending—is a form of eucatastrophe, the terms are not exact synonyms.)

Several other words contain the element -strophe, which stems from strephein, or elements derived from it. The word strophe itself, and its antonym antistrophe, pertain to elements of Greek tragedy, referring to the part of an ode sung by a chorus while it is turning to face another direction (east to west and west to east, respectively); the concluding movement is called the epode (“sung after”). Strophe has also come to refer to a part of a poem with stanzas of various lengths, and in the classic Greek era an antistrophe was also a dance.

The term boustrophedon, which literally means “turning an ox while plowing” (the first syllable is related to that of bovine), refers to ancient writing forms in which lines are alternately written left to right and right to left, as opposed to always from the same direction. Anastrophe, meanwhile, is an inversion of normal word order for literary effect, as in the phrase “forest primeval.”

The prefix strepto- is seen in the New Latin term streptococcus, which refers to a type of bacteria with a twisted shape. (The name for the medical condition caused by this bacteria, strep throat, uses an abbreviated form of the term.)

The words strap and strop, both referring to a band of leather or other material (and also used as verbs), are also derived from strephein.

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1 Response to “The Suffix -strophe”

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a rather-new form of research in mathematics that is called “Catastrophe Theory”, and it is an offshoot of Chaos Theory.
    To confuse matters, Catastrophe Theory does not have anything to do with predicting earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides, tornadoes, floods, etc. We wish that it did….

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