Sunday, June 5, 2016

Word of the Day: ”polygynopaedium”

In the initial, throat-clearing run-up to his massive 1975 masterwork, Sociobiology, Edward O. Wilson, in the section “The Kinds and Degrees of Sociality”, the author mentions W.M. Wheeler’s 1930 stab at classification, consisting of five types, rather dismissively, by contrast with the earlier (1918) system of Deegener, “who paid close attention to the fine details”, with 40 categories;  but then adds a linguistic or rather lexicographic caveat:

Unfortunately, Deegener felt compelled to provide a full terminology for his classification.  One form of concunnubium, he noted, is the amphoterosynhesmia, a swarm of both sexes  gathered for reproductive purposes … or the polygynopaedium,  an association of mother and daughters  each of which is reproducing parthenogenetically.
-- op. cit., p. 16)

Note:  However sesquipedalian those coinages may be, they are at least more self-explanatory [provided you are familiar with Greek and Latin roots] than e.g “Class II(a) and Class IV(b)”.  They are no more inherently outlandish than  deoxyribonucleic acid; successful such mouthfuls live on as acronyms, like DNA.

In any case, these categories are not nearly as obscure as their polysyllabicity might suggest -- both being exemplified  even within human societies, without so much as a nod  to baboon troops or termite hives.    An amphoterosynhesmia (I was personally familiar with several of these, in and around Berkeley) was precisely a hippie crash pad (the attention being however directed to reproductive preliminaries, rather than actually getting knocked up) or a Weatherman collective  during their period of obligate panmixia (for which see Susan Stern’s moving memoir).  And a polygynopaedium is the stated aim of The Rodwoman ©  and her coven of androphobic maenads.

Note:  Wilson himself seldom shies at the lexical rara avis or hapax legomenon.  A few pages after clucking his tongue at polygynopaedium, he writes of efforts “to define a niche as a Hutchinsonian hyperspace -- neither of those terms having been defined.  Your lexicographer might find that definition  a case of obscurum per obscurius.

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