Wildfire Spreads

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Wildfire is any large fire which spreads quickly and is hard to put out. Originally, it referred to the Greek fire, a highly flammable (firesome? flamesome?) substance deliberately launched, particularly at rival ships, to devastating effect.

The same thing can happen with words. Like any meme, words can spread swiftly and with inevitable and ferocious effect. The Greek wildfire was created deliberately for a particular end. Yet it is hard to force a meme or word to spread like wildfire. Unless we have an accelerant to speed and intensify the flame, that is. And one such accelerant is analogy.

The Spread by Analogy: Successful Examples

We used to say popular antiquities. But then in 1846, William J. Thoms came up with the word folklore as a deliberate Anglo-Saxonism. Now the phrase popular antiquities belongs with the Dodo, and formations in folk– have caught fire and spread wildly by analogy: folk art, folk music, folk musician, folk-song, folk-dance, folk-tale, folk-hero, folk-medicine.

Likewise, foreword was created in the nineteenth century probably as a loan translation of German Vorwort. It hasn’t completely replaced the Latin-based preface, but it’s made serious headway. Foreword sits nicely alongside the English word foreskin, itself created in the sixteenth century as a loan translation of the Latinate prepuce. In truth, who now would rather say prepuce or preface than foreskin and foreword?*

Another favourite Anglo-Saxonism of mine is handbook. This great word was the original Old English, which, like so many others, was ousted by Latinate manual in the Middle English period (from the Latin root itself meaning “hand”). During the nineteenth century, the word was given life again in imitation of German Handbuch. Apparently this word was decried in the beginning. But what could now be more natural or logical than handbook?

The Spread by Analogy: Your Turn

Indeed, the analogy of such successful words, and other words of similar form such as forehead, means the accelerant is already in place. We merely need to try coming up with other analogous words. If we slip them into our speech and writing, who knows, they may too spread like wildfire.

What new forms can you come up with in folk-, –lore, hand-, –book, fore-, and –word? Have you tried using them in conversation? Are you brave enough?(!) I’ll post up some forms I use in a forthcoming post: plenty of time for you to think up your own as well!

*However, note that preface as a noun is probably buttressed by the use of preface as a verb.

© 2015-2016 Bryan A. J. Parry

featured image from https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire#/media/File%3AGreekfire-madridskylitzes1.jpg

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