Idiosyncrasy

Let me call you “Siggie”….

Dear WD: My significant other and I are having a discussion about the meaning and etymology of the word ”idiosyncrasy.” Can you offer some insight into this? I was attempting to explain what I felt the word meant by breaking it down into its root parts. These seemed to me to be “idio,” meaning one’s individual self, and “sync,” meaning coordinated or meshing (as in synchronous computer communications or synchronized swimming, etc.). — Mark Chatterton.

Far be it from my place to buck the tide of social progress as reflected in the sometimes murky mirror of our language, but I simply must take this opportunity to note that the term “significant other” has always given me the significant wimwams. Aside from the somewhat tepid connotations of “significant” in a romantic context (“Marry me, darling. You’re significant to me.”), every time I hear the phrase I wonder whether I’ve fallen in with someone harboring multiple personalities (“Well, yes, there are many of me, but Sybil is my most significant other.”).

Now that I’ve put a dent in your relationship with your sweetie, please accept my congratulations — you are definitely on the right track about “idiosyncrasy.” The Greek root “idio” does indeed mean “of a particular person” or “personal,” and crops up in many other English words, such as “idiom” (“one’s own way of speaking”). “Idiot” comes from the same Greek root, originally meaning “common man,” and only later coming to mean “ignorant.”

You’re essentially right about the “sync” part, too. The Greek root was “synkrasis,” meaning “a blending or mixture,” or, as you put it, a “meshing.” Put all the pieces together, and we have “idiosyncrasy” meaning “an individual’s mixture of personal characteristics.”

Incidentally, “idiosyncrasy” is one of those rare English words whose modern sense corresponds almost precisely to the combined meanings of its ancient roots. Language almost never operates in such an orderly fashion, and it is far more common to find that the roots of a word bear only a tangential logical relation to its current meaning.

 

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