or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Product Placement

If you have seasonal allergies, you know what hell they can be. I used to be blithely unaware of them until ten or twelve years ago, when suddenly every spring my eyes would itch and swell, my nose would drip like a faucet, and my skin...well, you know that scene in "Poltergeist" where the guy rips his face off in pieces? That seemed like a pretty good idea. Thank goodness for Reactine. (I used Claritin for the first couple of years, but then it just stopped working. These drugs have a way of doing that, it seems.)

It's allergy season once again, and the birch pollen count (for birch pollen was my body's allergen of choice) is at 200 today, which is very very high, and...nothing. Not the slightest sign of an allergic reaction. I suppose if an allergy can just launch itself at you after a lifelong history of nothing of the sort, it can depart as suddenly. I'm very grateful to my clever clever immune system for figuring out a way around this yearly misery.

I naturally looked to Wikipedia for more information on the (theoretical) phenomenon of vanishing allergies, and though there wasn't anything, this is the first sentence of the entry:

Allergy is a disorder of the immune system often also referred to as atopy.

It is? Atopy? Really? Why was I not informed earlier? 'Cause that's a heck of a word.

"A-" is a very common prefix in English, and it means "not", as in "amoral" ("possessing no morals") or "ahistorical". The second part, "-topy", should be familiar from such words as "topography" and "ectopic" (literally "out of place", describing, among other things, a pregnancy that settles in the fallopian tube rather than the uterus).

So "-topy" and its other manifestations, from Greek "topos", means "place". But it also has another related but very different meaning: "commonplace". "Atopy", therefore, means "something unusual or extraordinary". I think, though I don't know for sure, that this applies to allergens because they cause an extreme reaction in some people whereas in most of the population they cause little or no problem at all--in fact, aren't even noticeable. (If you aren't allergic to mulberry pollen, would you even know it was in the air?)

Another "topos" word that might look familiar is "utopia", from the title of the novel by Thomas More. Isn't it tempting to think that the "u-" prefix is an abbreviation of "eu-", "good" (as in "eulogy", "good words", originally a benediction, or "euphoria", "well-being"), since a utopia is a perfect sort of place? That isn't the derivation, though: the prefix "u-", originally "ou-", is a Greek negation, and so "utopia" literally means "no place"--somewhere imaginary, and imaginarily nice.


Blogger Gammer Gurton said...

In re "common suffix:" perhaps "prefix?"

Thursday, May 15, 2008 2:20:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Yes, "prefix". All fixed. Thanks for pointing it out. As I've said so many times, you can't edit your own writing--you'll always miss something obvious.

Thursday, May 15, 2008 3:05:00 PM  

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