In Case You Get Asked

Parachute + Sailing = Parasailing

Parachute + Sailing = Parasailing

When my high school geometry teacher admonished us, “This is important, people!” I probably should have paid closer attention.  If I had, now I wouldn’t be choking back tears of shame every time someone stops me on the street and says, “Hey, you can’t remember how to calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle, can you?”

Oh, I remember it had to do with a guy named Pythagoras and some theorem he had, but if I had known how often it would come up in conversation, I would have taken the time to memorize it.

In my defense, I’ve always been more of a words guy than a numbers guy: I can spell hypotenuse and can define it (“the side of a right triangle opposite the right angle”), I just can’t solve for it.  when I was a kid in school, I guess I thought that when I grew up and people stopped me on the street, they would be asking, “Excuse me, sir, can you tell me the difference between a prefix and a suffix?”

Does that ever come up?  Never.  But questions about triangles and how to solve for X — on average, I get those from complete strangers about twice a week.

Well, if you’re more of a numbers person and keep getting hit out of the blue with inquiries about the etymology of certain words, let me save you some embarrassment.

Let’s say your little nephew demands to know why so many words start with the prefix “para”.  You can start by acknowledging that there certainly are a lot of them:  paradise, paralysis, paragraph, paranoid, paradox… “Yeah,” he interrupts, “and parasite and parable and paramedic.”

Smile patiently; give him a moment to rattle off paradigm and parallel and parathyroid if necessary.  Eventually he’ll pause and let you explain that there are actually several meanings for those “para” prefixes.

Most seem to have origins in Greek, and have the meaning at, next to, or side by side.  Examples of those are parallel, paragraph, paradigm and parathyroid.  Other loanwords from Greek convey beyond or past; paradox, for instance, literally meant “beyond belief”.

In English, the prefix para became associated with occupations that are subsidiary to professions that require more training, or perhaps have higher status.  A paralegal does tasks that assist an attorney, but is not licensed to practice law.  Similarly, a paramedic may truly be a life saver, but serves that role in the absence of a doctor.

A paratrooper, however, is not a trooper with lesser credentials.  That word is a combined form of parachute and trooper.  In the same vein, parasailing combines parachute and sailing.

Your nephew will be impressed when you tell him that the word parachute actually comes from two French words that mean “guard against” and “falling”.  You might want to add that a parasol guards against… yes, the sun.

If you want, you could enlighten your nephew that parakeet and Paraguay and paradise are derived from other words.  Or maybe not.  You don’t want to overdo it and, you know, exceed the parameters of friendly discussion.


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