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This week's theme: combining forms.

It's a good thing we don't have to go with the literal meaning of words or we'd be exercising in the nude in the gymnasia. The word gymnasium derives from the combining form gymno-, meaning nude or bare. Other words similarly formed are gymnoplast (protoplasm without surrounding wall) and gymnosophy (a form of philosophy practiced by those refusing to wear clothes).

What are combining forms? You can think of them as the Legos of language. As their name indicates, a combining form is a linguistic atom that occurs only in combination with some other form.

This week we'll see words formed using these combining forms: auto- (self), tricho- (hair), chiro- (hand), algo- (pain), and lepto- (thin). We start with:

Autotomy (au-TOT-uh-mee) noun

Autotomy is nature's gift to some animals to help them escape when under attack or injured. A lizard being chased will shed its tail and slip away. The detached tail continues to wriggle, distracting the predator, while its former owner flees to safety.

The lizard goes home and buys a replacement on eBay. Just kidding! Of course, they can't do that. eBay's policy explicitly prohibits lizards from bidding. They just grow it back. Other animals who use autotomy are: spider, crab, lobster... and maybe even humans.

In 2003, a courageous hiker got his arm trapped under a boulder in a remote Utah canyon. He used his pocketknife to cut his arm off and freed himself. If only humans could grow them back as well.

The word autotomy does double duty. It has another sense: performing surgery upon oneself. It's not as unusual as it sounds. While we see it mostly in science fiction (think of Terminator doing his own eye surgery), with the skyrocketing cost of healthcare, perhaps days of autotomy aren't far-off. Look for do-it-yourself surgery kits in your neighborhood pharmacy soon.

We got this word thanks to the Greeks: from auto- (self) and -tomy (cutting). The word "anatomy" is related. Its derivation refers to the dissection medical students perform to study the structure of a body.

-Anu Garg (garg AT wordsmith.org)

See more usage examples of autotomy in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees."
Wislawa Szymborska; View with a Grain of Sand: Selected Poems; Harvest Books; 1995.


The voice of conscience is so delicate that it is easy to stifle it; but it is also so clear that it is impossible to mistake it. -Madame De Stael, writer (1766-1817)

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