This introduction is a revised version of the one in the book from which this site is drawn, Ologies and Isms: Word Beginnings and Endings, published by Oxford University Press in 2002.
This site is about some of the building blocks of the English language, those beginnings and endings that help form a large proportion of the words we use. Not all word-forming roots are here. If they were, the site would be ten times as big and vastly less digestible. What you will find are those examples that are identifiable as affixes, knowledge of which can then be generalized to help identify unknown words of the same kind, or even perhaps to create new ones.
It was in the summer of 1995, while my former business partner and I were studying the displays in a medical museum in order to advise how to improve them, that he remarked that one of the things needed to enhance visitors’ enjoyment would be an explanation of the mysteries of medical terminology: the difference, say, between an -itis and an -algia, or between words starting in haemo- and hepato-. That conversation stayed with me. Increased exposure to the complexities of technical language, and to the diversification of knowledge that has led to sub-disciplines such as palaeophytogeography and psychoneuroendocroimmunology, whose names pile element upon element, reinforced a belief that a concise work was needed that interpreted the main word-forming affixes in English.
The entries on this site cover most of those active in the language today, as well as others that have contributed to the language in the past; only the most specialist, obscure or archaic have been left out. However, place-name affixes (-burgh, -ham, -thwaite, -wick) have been excluded. Personal name affixes such as Fitz-, Mac-, and -son have also been omitted.
The aim throughout has been to provide many examples, on the principle that it is easier to absorb the subtleties of the way such forms are used when they are seen in action. A second aim has been to show links between words, both grammatically and thematically; where possible I have tried to give some background and explain how words have come to mean what they do. So far as possible, technical language has been avoided or explained. But finding a short way to explain the complexities of medical or scientific terminology is not always achievable without using other words that are equally specialist and obscure. A dictionary writer may do so in the comforting knowledge that the reader is already holding the key in his hand. This site doesn’t have that advantage; if technical terms send you to the dictionary too often, I apologize, but the alternative would be too wordy to endure. For the same reason, though explanations of the meanings of many technical words are supplied for guidance, they should not be taken as definitive; a large dictionary or specialist work should be consulted in doubtful or subtle cases.
I have deliberately avoided most linguistic or grammatical language. But a few terms are relatively common, and hard to avoid without circumlocution, loquacity, or confusion, so it seemed best to take a deep breath and put them in. Any good dictionary will help with those that may not be obvious. You may like to see a discussion of the formal terms for types of affix.
It is a truism that all lexicography is plagiarism, since every new work builds on what has gone before. In particular, I acknowledge my debt to the Oxford Dictionary of English, whose presentation of the language on the most modern principles has been most helpful, and to the Oxford English Dictionary, whose scholarship is unrivalled in the English language. But many dozens of specialist works have also been trawled, as has the World Wide Web, a resource that might have been invented to help hard-pressed word-searchers.
My thanks go to my editors at Oxford University Press, Elizabeth Knowles and Alysoun Owen, and to Dr Terry Hoad for his help in sorting out many points of detail, in the process greatly improving my Latin and Greek.