or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Breakdown

Another one of those nights while I was lying in bed waiting for sleep to come (it hardly ever does when I most want it to), and one of things I was idly wondering--one of the things that pops into my head and probably keeps me from sleeping as I ponder it--was where the word root "-lysis" might have some from. I don't recall which word came to me first and started the chain of wondering: was it "paralysis", or "hydrolysis", or maybe "electrolysis"?

"Hydrolysis" is probably the most easily fractionated if you know its meaning: it's the snapping apart of water molecules (that's the "hydro-") into its component elements hydrogen and oxygen. So "-lysis" must be the action of dismantling something. But how does that make any sense in the word "paralysis"?

Like so, I think. The Greek verb "lyein" means "to loosen: to untie", so anything ending with "-lysis" or its various offshoots ("analytical", "catalyze") has to do with the deconstruction of something or other. The prefix "para-" has a number of differing but related meanings, including "beyond", "beside", "against", "aside from", "contrary to", and "abnormally". I think the "para-" of "paralysis" means "beyond" in the sense of "beyond the normal bounds" and therefore "completely"; when you have a paralyzed limb, it's completely disconnected from the rest of your body without actually being severed--you can't move it, you can't feel it. I suppose the sense of abnormality that "para-" can convey might be applicable as well, but I like my idea better. Since no dictionary I've consulted, not even the OED, wants to spell it out for me, I'm just going to have to go with what I know.

The rest of the common "-lysis" words in English are much more easily understood. Pyrolysis: the destruction of something by fire or heat. Catalysis: the complete breaking down of something ("cata-" means "down"). Dialysis: the taking apart of something ("dia-" means "across" or "apart"), most usually blood, which is mechanically separated into its good and bad elements for people whose kidneys can no longer do the job. Analysis: the thorough ("ana-" equals "through, throughout, thoroughly") breaking down of a problem into its component parts. Electrolysis: well, that one's self-explanatory, isn't it?


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