Archetype vs. Prototype

By Mark Nichol

What’s your type? Archetype and prototype are both suitable matches for referring to an exemplar — and then there’s stereotype — but among their senses are both similar and dissimilar meanings.

Before we go into details, let’s look at the root word: Type (from the Latin term typus, “image,” ultimately derived from the Greek word typos, “impression”) is defined as “a model,” “a distinctive sign,” “a set of distinguishable qualities.” Idiomatic usage for the word includes “type A personality” (indicating a high-strung person, based on popular perception of a discredited psychological theory), “casting against type” (referring to when performers are selected for roles they don’t superficially seem suited for), and “not my type” (dismissal of another person because of personal incompatibility).

In two senses, archetype and prototype are direct synonyms: They both mean “original pattern or model,” or “perfect example.” However, archetype (Latin, archetypum; Greek, arkhetypon), which literally means “first model,” also refers to C. J. Jung’s concept of an idea or image from the collective subconscious; it has a more intellectual connotation.

The prefix arch- denotes the most accomplished or high ranking of a type (archrival, archvillain), as does the suffix -arch (patriarch, hierarch); -archy is the basis for terms describing a system of government (monarchy) or an organizational scheme (hierarchy). Interestingly, because the prefix was so often employed, as in the examples above, to describe a nefarious person, arch acquired an adjectival sense of “mischievous, impudent.” (The arch in, well, arch, referring to a structural member, has a different etymology and is akin to arc.)

Prototype has the same literal meaning, but its primary sense is more utilitarian, referring to a standard configuration, the initial model of a constructed object, or an earlier version of an organism or a device. The proto- prefix is relatively obscure, occurring mostly in scientific terminology (protoplasm, “beginning molding,” and protozoa, “beginning animal,” are examples of its use most familiar to laypeople); the root word, as an integral part of a larger term rather than as a suffix, appears in protocol (from a Greek term meaning “first sheet,” referring to a code or convention dictating proper procedure).

Stereotype means “something that matches a fixed or universal pattern,” but unlike the other terms, it usually has a negative connotation: It refers to an idea, carelessly formed based on ignorance or bigotry, that one class of people generally understands to be, well, typical of another class.

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1 Response to “Archetype vs. Prototype”

  • Tony Hearn

    Technically the second prefix is ‘arche-‘, although the ‘e’ is elided before a vowel.

    in Jungian terms the archetype is surely a mental image from the collective unconscious, not the subconscious.

    In theological terms the archetype is the person revered who is represented in an image.

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